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Witnesses debate age hike for Suffolk tobacco sales

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

Backers of a bill in Suffolk County to raise the age from 19 to 21 to buy tobacco products testified Tuesday that the legislation would reduce smoking among young people, while retailers said it would be "debilitating" to their businesses.

Legis. William Spencer (D-Centerport), the bill's sponsor, said his mother started smoking when she was 19 and died when she was 58. "She spent a lifetime trying to quit," he said.

But more than a dozen convenience store owners who attended the Legislature's first public hearing on the measure warned it would drive young people to Nassau County or the black market to buy cigarettes.

"It would have a debilitating effect on our business," said Jack Rugen, of Deer Park, a Rocky Point convenience store owner and vice president of United Franchise Owners of Long Island, a trade group.

Dorothy Castaldo, owner of a 7-Eleven franchise in Commack with her husband, said two under-21 Marine recruiters come in to buy cigarettes every day. "If they cannot buy cigarettes, should we pass a law that they can't go to war for us?" she asked.

The proposed law would impose fines of as much as $1,000 for businesses that sell tobacco products to customers 21 on a first offense and as much as $1,500 for second offenses. Sales of electronic cigarettes would be covered.

County health workers pointed to data that New York State high school students' use of tobacco products is rising slightly. In 2012, 21.8 percent of students used tobacco, according to a New York Department of Health survey. That's up from 20.8 percent in 2010, but well below the 32.5 percent who used tobacco in 2000.

Lori Benincasa, director of the Suffolk County Office of Health Education, said a California survey of younger teen smokers found nearly a third bought cigarettes from friends aged 19 to 21.

"If you prevent kids from experimenting, from becoming addicted as kids, everybody wins," Benincasa said.

"Not everybody," an audience member shouted.

Some lawmakers expressed skepticism about the proposed ban.

"We're talking about adults who can get married, serve in the military," said Legis. Lou D'Amaro (D-North Babylon), who said he's still undecided on the bill.

Store owners said that with the recession and taxes that are now $4.35 on a pack of cigarettes in New York, stores that once sold 35 cartons a day were selling 20 cartons a day.

Others said Suffolk should wait for data from New York City, which in October passed a law to raise the age to 21 to purchase cigarettes and tobacco products.

Legis. Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) said she understood, "the ramifications of these lost sales, but these are poisonous products."

The Legislature is scheduled to hold another public hearing on the issue March 4.Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory announced his support of the legislation after the hearing. He previously had been neutral.

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