Suffolk report: Smoking age hike could crimp tax revenues, but realize $2.9B in health savings

A Suffolk lawmaker has filed a bill to A Suffolk lawmaker has filed a bill to raise the legal age for buying cigarettes and other tobacco products in the county from 19 to 21, but concedes he expects "a battle for each and every vote." Photo Credit: Charles Eckert

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A proposed local law to raise Suffolk's smoking age from 19 to 21 could cause an annual loss of as much as $412,000 in sales tax revenues, but a potential $2.9 billion in long-term health savings, legislative budget analysts said.

"There will be a likely negative impact to tobacco retailers in the short term, which will be offset in the county economy as a whole by non-tobacco purchases, by an increase in productivity and by decreases in the cost of health care," said Robert Lipp, director of the Office of Budget Review.

But Jim Calvin, president of the New York State Association of Convenience Stores, said the three-page analysis "belongs in the fiction section of the Hauppauge public library. Rather than fiscal analysis based on objective research, this is propaganda based on conjecture and wishful thinking."

The budget review office based its assessment of the impact on tax revenues on a population of 5,312 smokers ages 19 and 20, buying one pack a day at a cost of $10 a pack.

Analysts said much of the revenue drop likely would be offset because tobacco purchasers would spend the money on other products.

The budget analysts, citing research that forecast a $212 billion nationwide health savings over the next 50 years by raising the smoking age, estimated Suffolk's share of those savings would be $2.9 billion. Analysts also estimated that Suffolk could save $90,000 to $180,000 in its annual Medicaid contribution because of a reduction in low-birth-weight children born to young mothers who smoke.

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Legis. William Spencer (D-Centerport), sponsor of the measure to raise the smoking age, and a physician, called the findings a "very significant step" in building support for the legislation.

Spencer warned that he expected a "tough uphill fight" against retailers and the smoking lobby.

The fiscal impact statement comes as the new anti-smoking law, recommended by the county board of health, faces a public hearing Feb. 11 in Hauppauge.

Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory (D-Amityville) said he remained undecided about the legislation but was leaning in favor of it in light of the possibility of alleviating "decades of health costs" for those who forego smoking.

Legis. John M. Kennedy Jr. (R-Nesconset), minority leader, called the proposal a "paper tiger" because state law only imposes penalties for selling tobacco to those under age 18 and the county cannot enforce penalties for violations involving 19- and 20-year-old smokers.

"We shouldn't be spinning our wheels and wasting our time putting laws on the books that are useless and unenforceable," Kennedy said.

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