Brad Gerstman in WSJ: City to Raise Age Limit On Tobacco Sales


New York City is planning to raise the legal age to purchase cigarettes and other tobacco products to 21 from 18, a proposal that would make New York the first major city in the nation to bring the minimum age above 19.

The proposal is the city’s latest effort to combat smoking in the five boroughs and marks a reversal for Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who previously opposed legislation that would have increased the minimum age to purchase tobacco products.

“The more difficult it is for high schoolers to gain access to tobacco products, the less likely they are to start smoking, the more likely they are to live longer,” said City Council Speaker Christine Quinn at a City Hall news conference announcing the legislation. “We’re confident that this legislation will result in a healthier city and set a new standard for the rest of the country to live up to.”

City statistics show 20,000 public high-school students smoke in New York City, and roughly 80% of all city smokers started before the age of 21. The rate of teenage smoking in the five boroughs fell to 8.5% in 2007, but has remained stagnant ever since.

Mr. Bloomberg, who has made public-health policies a cornerstone of his 11-plus years in office, did not attend Monday’s news conference announcing the legislation. But he sent Thomas Farley, commissioner of the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, to express the administration’s strong support for the proposal.

Last month, Mr. Bloomberg proposed legislation that would require stores to keep tobacco products hidden from public view, a policy that has been adopted in places around the world but is unprecedented in the U.S. A companion bill establishes a minimum price for a pack of cigarettes of $10.50.

Both of those proposals, plus the latest one that would raise the minimum age, will be examined during a council hearing on May 2.

In 2006, Mr. Bloomberg said he opposed legislation that would raise the minimum age because he wasn’t convinced that it would be effective.

“The best ways to reduce smoking among young people is to raise cigarette taxes because cigarette taxes have been shown to directly impact the younger people’s ability to buy cigarettes,” he was quoted as saying at the time.

In explaining the policy change, Samantha Levine, a spokeswoman for Mr. Bloomberg, said the mayor has supported a number of initiatives that he had not supported before, such as requiring stores to remove cigarettes from public view, in hopes of further cutting youth smoking. “We revisited this proposal,” Ms. Levine said, “and found new data from the United Kingdom that shows it can have an impact.”

After Britain raised the minimum sale age to 18 from 16 in 2007, there was a 30% decline in smoking among youth ages 16 to 17, according to statistics provided by City Hall.

In 2002, Mr. Bloomberg convinced the council to approve a citywide ban on smoking in bars and restaurants, a policy he often cites as one of the greatest accomplishments of his tenure. In 2011, the mayor signed legislation that extended the ban, prohibiting smoking in parks, beaches, marinas and on boardwalks and pedestrian plazas.

Audrey Silk, founder of Citizens Lobbying Against Smoker Harassment, a city-based smokers’ rights group, said the statistics cited by advocates are “questionable and disputable” but mostly irrelevant to the debate. She described the proposal as “government paternalism at its worst.”

“Those aged 18 and above are not children. Cigarettes are legal,” she said in a statement. “At 18 one is deemed adult enough to make responsible choices—to marry, to serve in the military (an immediate risk to health these days), and to vote for the very people who think they’re not smart enough to make an informed decision.”

Brad Gerstman, spokesman for the New York Association of Grocery Stores, said the proposal “sounds like apple pie” but in reality will “increase the black market for cigarettes.”

“At the end of the day, it’s really not going to stop smoking,” he said, noting that struggling businesses will end up with even more fines.

Officials said Monday they haven’t yet determined the fine structure, but that only sellers will be subject to a fine.

Currently, retail dealers that sell tobacco products to minors face a maximum fine of $1,000 for the first violation. A subsequent violation at the same business within a two-year period could generate a fine up to $2,000.

Priyanka Kuncha, a manager at the Fabulous Boutique on MacDougal Street, which sells tobacco-related paraphernalia, said she was conflicted about the issue.

“If we’re talking about business, 18 is clearly good, it’s the better number,” she said. “But when we think beyond business, we understand why it should be 21. It’s probably the right thing to do.”

At Washington Square Park, some students attending New York University were decidedly unenthusiastic about the latest proposal.

Sadaaf Mamoon, 19, said the proposal is probably smart health policy, but it made her nervous as a smoker under the age of 21. Ms. Mamoon, a freshman from Mississippi, said she started smoking at the age of 14.

“We already drink, so what do you think we’re going to do? We’ll find a way,” she said. “It wouldn’t make it impossible, it would just make it inconvenient.”

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