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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

Nassau makes the wrong move on smoking age

Philip Castaldo, president of the United Franchise Owners

Philip Castaldo, president of the United Franchise Owners of Long Island and New York and owner of a 7-Eleven, stands in his store in Commack on March 28, 2014. Castaldo is opposed to boosting the age to purchase tobacco products. Photo Credit: Ed Betz

Nassau County's decision to punt on raising the legal age to buy tobacco products from 19 to 21 leaves young people in Suffolk and New York City free to purchase smokes in the county wedged in between.

It's a bad move.

And arguments that the state ought to raise the smoking age for every New York county -- or that 19- and 20-year-olds, as adults, should have the right to smoke as they please, as business owners contend -- just don't make the cut.

For one, there's no legislation pending in Albany to raise the legal age to buy tobacco and tobacco products to 21 -- despite decades of medical and other research that make it abundantly clear that smoking kills.

There are more recent studies to take into account as well. Researchers using magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, were surprised after mapping the brain's development from early childhood into adulthood.

Before, it was assumed human brains were fully developed by young adulthood. Now, it appears the brain keeps changing into the early 20s, with the frontal lobes, which govern reasoning and problem solving, developing last. That makes sense, if only because many of us realize -- usually in our 30s -- just how brave, bold and downright reckless we were in our early 20s.

In Suffolk, Legis. William Spencer (D-Centerport), a pediatric surgeon, pushed the measure to raise the age for tobacco purchases.

It passed a county legislature that for decades has prided itself on being ahead of the pack on everything from regulating phosphates in detergents to outlawing driving while talking on cellphones.

In 2002, Nassau actually was at the forefront on the issue of smoking legislation when it became the first county in New York State to ban smoking in bars, restaurants, bowling alleys and bingo halls.

The move created a domino-effect, as Suffolk, Westchester, New York City and, in 2003, New York State passed similar measures.

This time around, Nassau is lagging.

Earlier this month, Suffolk passed a bill -- effective in January 2015 -- raising the age limit for purchasing tobacco products to 21 from 19. New York City's law raising the age to 21 takes effect on May 19.

But in Nassau, the Republican majority in the legislature decided to block a vote on the measure, sponsored by a Democrat, Legis. Judy Jacobs of Woodbury. Presiding Officer Norma Gonsalves (R-East Meadow) said state legislators in Albany should deal with the issue to ensure "statewide uniformity."

That leaves Nassau in the company of shrinking numbers of downstate counties that still allow 19- and 20-year olds to buy tobacco -- despite studies showing that 90 percent of smokers pick up the habit before they turn 21.

"We don't need another generation of kids addicted to this deadly product," Michael Seilback, a spokesman for the American Lung Association, told Newsday.

And yet, Nassau opts to remain passive on an issue where it once led the state.

What a difference a decade makes.

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