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NYC proposes raising age to buy tobacco products to 21

A smoker puffs away at Tompkins Square Park

A smoker puffs away at Tompkins Square Park in Manhattan. (Sept. 15, 2009) Credit: Getty Images

A proposal that would hike the legal age for buying tobacco products in New York City from 18 to 21 was announced Monday by city officials.

City Council Speaker Christine Quinn said that Mayor Michael Bloomberg and a majority of the council support the new bill, which would make the city one of the largest metropolitan areas to raise the minimum age.

Quinn said too many teenagers are getting hooked not only because they can start buying packs at 18 but also 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," she said. Quinn, who is running for mayor, said 20,000 public high school students smoke each year and raising the minimum age could reduce smoking among 18- to 20-year-olds by 55 percent.

Health Commissioner Thomas Farley said anti-smoking initiatives have reduced the number of smokers, but tobacco use among teens has remained flat at 8.5 percent since 2007.

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

"By the time all the information had come out decades later she quit . . . but . . . we lost her," said the Queens councilman, who introduced a similar bill in 2006 that lost steam when Bloomberg threatened to veto it because he didn't think it would work.

This time, however, Bloomberg is committed to the legislation, a spokesman said.

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

Audrey Silk, founder of Citizens Lobbying Against Smoker Harassment, a New York smokers advocate group, criticized the proposal, saying the city is trying to "redefine adulthood."

However, Dr. Cheryl Healton, the dean of global public health at NYU, said the statistics speak for themselves, claiming 80 percent of New York smokers started lighting up before 21. "This is a step in the right direction," she said.--With Anna Sanders