New York City raises tobacco-buying age to 21

Cigarette packs line the shelves at a convenience store in New York. The City Council has raised the cigarette-buying age from 18 to 21. (Associated Press)

NEW YORK – Smoking may be a bad habit – but New York City lawmakers want their residents to be older and wiser before deciding to take it up.

The New York City Council voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to raise the age for purchasing cigarettes from 18 to 21, a move that would make the nation’s most populous city among only a handful in the United States to target young smokers by barring them from buying smokes. It also approved a bill that sets a minimum $10.50-a-pack price for tobacco cigarettes and steps up law enforcement on illegal tobacco sales.

“This will literally save many, many lives,” said an emotional City Councilman James Gennaro, the bill’s sponsor, whose mother and father died from tobacco-related illnesses. “I’ve lived with it, I’ve seen it … but I feel good today.”

Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is a strong supporter of the tough smoking restrictions, has 30 days to sign the bills into law. The minimum-age bill will take effect 180 days after enactment.

“We know that tobacco dependence can begin very soon after a young person first tries smoking so it’s critical that we stop young people from smoking before they ever start,” Bloomberg said in a statement.

With Wednesday’s vote, New York is by far the biggest city to bar cigarette sales to 19- and 20-year-olds. Similar legislation is expected to come to a vote in Hawaii this December. The tobacco-buying age is 21 in Needham, Mass., and is poised to rise to 21 in January in nearby Canton, Mass. The state of New Jersey is also considering a similar proposal.

Lawmakers who pushed for the change cite city statistics that show youth smoking rates have plateaued at 8.5 percent since 2007.

“We have to do more and that’s what we’re doing today,” City Council Speaker Christine Quinn said. “We have a real chance of leading the country and the world.”

The city’s current age limit is 18, a federal minimum that’s standard in many places. Smoking in city parks and beaches is already prohibited as it is in restaurants.

Advocates say higher age limits help prevent, or at least delay, young people from taking up a habit that remains the leading cause of preventable deaths nationwide.

But cigarette manufacturers have suggested young adult smokers may just turn to black-market merchants. And some smokers say it’s unfair and patronizing to tell people considered mature enough to vote and serve in the military that they’re not old enough to decide whether to smoke.

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