No cigarettes if under 21: New York City approves new anti-tobacco law
The City Council approved the bill on Wednesday this week, and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said he plans to sign it soon after it arrives on his desk. The ‘Tobacco 21’ initiative will then go on the books 180 days later, raising the legal age for purchasing tobacco products in the Big Apple to well above the national standard.
Eighteen is the legal age for purchasing cigarettes, cigar, tobacco and accessories in most of the United States, sans a handful of jurisdictions where the threshold is 19. Needham, Massachusetts — a suburb of Boston — for example, raised the legal smoking age there to 21 in 2005.
"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," Mayor Bloomberg said in a statement this week.
The legislation will also impose a mandatory minimum price in NYC for cigarette packages — $10.50 — and will allow for authorities to impose fines starting at $1,000 for storekeepers who sell to customers under 21.
If shops in the city are caught violating the new law more than once, the city can consider an array of other options, such as revoking a vendor’s cigarette-selling license. Shopkeepers are understandably opposed to the measure, and James Calvin, president of the New York Association of Convenience Stores, issued a statement warning that incidental purchases can soon dwindle at local retailers, potentially costing the industry thousands of jobs.
On the other side of the argument, however, lies a compelling case courtesy of city officials who say the initiative could save millions of New Yorkers who might otherwise increase the odds of developing diseases attributed with smoking.
"This will literally save many, many lives," an emotional City Councilman James Gennaro, the bill's sponsor, told reporters after the bill was signed.
Both Gennaro’s mother and father died from tobacco-related illnesses, but he suggested to the New York Daily News that others around the country might not be as unfortunate if other cities opt to follow New York’s lead.
“We’re the first ones to act. Once we go, I think the dominoes are going to fall, and I think this is a very good day for the city and ultimately for the state and for the country,” Gennaro said. “We looked at other places that have gone to 21 in other parts in the world and we saw that there was a big difference to be made by doing that,” he added.
"We have to do more and that's what we're doing today," added City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who told reporters that “this is literally legislation that will save lives.”
"We have a real chance of leading the country and the world,” insisted Quinn.
Opponents of the bill, however, say it will only make worse the underground black-market that allows underage smokers to acquire tobacco products elsewhere.
"New York City already has the highest cigarette tax rate and the highest cigarette smuggling rate in the country," Bryan D. Hatchell, a spokesman for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, told the AP. "Those go hand in hand and this new law will only make the problem worse.”
Ray Story, founder of the Atlanta-based Tobacco Vapor Electronic Cigarette Association, also told the AP reporters that he didn’t favor raising the legal age.
“Is 21 the right number? People can join the Army at 18,” Story said.
The “Tobacco 21” law, once signed by Mayor Bloomberg, will also apply to electronic, or e-cigarettes, like the kind sold by members of Story’s trade group.