City Council plans to raise age to buy tobacco to 21

(Charles Eckert)

(Charles Eckert) (Credit: Smokers under 21 will be prohibited from buying tobacco products in the spring. (Charles Eckert))

UPDATED 8:06 p.m.: After banning the butts from the bars, beaches and parks, the city is targeting young New Yorkers in its battle against smoking.

City Council Speaker Christine Quinn announced Monday that Mayor Michael Bloomberg and a majority of the council support a new bill that would make the Big Apple the first big city to raise the minimum age to buy tobacco products from 18 to 21.

Quinn said too many teenagers are getting hooked not only because they can start buying packs at 18 but because they often give cigarettes to their younger friends.

"Those people who are not smokers at the age of 21 are less likely to ever start," said Quinn, a mayoral hopeful.

Health Commissioner Thomas Farley, who announced the bill with Quinn, said that although the city's anti-smoking initiatives have significantly reduced the number of smokers, tobacco use among teens has remained flat at 8.5% since 2007.

Quinn said 20,000 public high school students smoke each year and raising the minimum age could reduce smoking between 18 and 20-year-olds by 55%.

"That will literally save lives," she said.

City Councilman James Gennaro, who introduced the bill, said the issue is personal for him. His mother, who died in 2002 of lung cancer, started smoking at 18 in 1946.

Gennaro introduced a similar bill in 2006 that lost steam once the mayor threatened to veto it because he didn't think it work. This time, however, Bloomberg is backing the bill, his spokesman said.

The council's Health Committee will discuss the bill on May 2 and it is expected to pass when it reaches the full council.

Several Manhattan convenience store owners said the proposal wouldn't affect their businesses because the high cigarette tax keeps them from making much money on smokes. Sam Shaikh, 23, who works at Bleecker Grocery & Convenience, said he doubts it would curb teen smokers.

"There are a lot of young people that like to smoke and they're going to find other ways to smoke," he said.

Audrey Silk, founder of Citizens Lobbying Against Smoker Harassment, a New York smokers advocate group, criticized the proposal, saying that the city is trying to "redefine adulthood" instead of promoting stronger enforcement of current regulations. "It's government paternalism at its worst," she said.

However, Dr. Cheryl Healton, the dean of global public health at NYU said the statistics speak for themselves: 80% of New York smokers started lighting up before 21.

"This is a step in the right direction," she said.

Olivia Bauer, 19, an NYU student who smokes, welcomed the idea, noting that many of her peers want to quit but the pressure makes it hard.

"When you come to college here, it's like a thing you try out," she said.
 

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