New York state proposes raising tobacco age to 21

By Lorne Fultonberg

April 29, 2013 Updated Apr 29, 2013 at 7:36 PM EDT

(WBNG Binghamton) Two state lawmakers have proposed a bill that would raise the legal age to buy tobacco products from 18 to 21.

Sen. Diane Savino (D-23rd District) and Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal (D-Manhattan) announced their plan Sunday to raise the legal age.

"It won't eliminate all youth starting to smoke, but it hopefully will decrease the numbers and help protect their health," said Sharon Fischer, a public health educator with the Broome County Health Department.

A report from New York City -- which proposed a similar measure last week -- shows raising the age would decrease smoking in 18 to 20-year-olds by 55 percent. Smoking would decrease by 66 percent in children ages 14-17.

Fischer says 88 percent of all smokers started before age 18, and 99 percent started before their 26th birthdays.

"Adding another three years will help some of the young people make a better decision about not smoking and realize the health consequences that come down the road," she said.

Some opposition to the proposal isn't due to the side effects of smoking, though.

"We understand that smoking is a harmful choice, the evidence is pretty uncontroversial," said Zachary Greenberg, president of the Binghamton University College Libertarians. "But it's still a decision that people have to make for themselves and we believe that we should allow people to make their own decisions and the freedom to make that decision as responsible 18, 19-year-olds."

And what's more, College Libertarians President-elect Samson Audino says raising the age isn't necessarily the best solution.

"The drinking age is 21 and it doesn't seem that it really works," he said. "The fact that it's illegal kind of mystifies it and obviously 18-20-year-olds, they're all drinking, they're binge drinking and I think being illegal contributes to the binge drinking.

"So I really think the only way to really reduce smoking, you can't just make it illegal and expect people to stop," he said. "You just have to over the years, education, families, churches have to teach that smoking is bad."

Education is the area that Assembly members Donna Lupardo and Clifford Crouch agree should be targeted to curb tobacco use.

"Though I have not heard from my constituents yet on this matter, I would much rather see us adequately fund smoking cessation efforts than to impose this kind of change," Lupardo said in an email.

Crouch added he feared raising the tobacco age would turn New York into a "nanny state."

But for Fischer, protecting the individual is what public health is supposed to do.

"It's all about protecting people from disease and death and protecting tax payers from the high costs of smoking related illnesses which they pay a large amount for each year in New York," she said.

Tobacco vendors said they weren't sure how the new proposal would affect their businesses. But they said businesses in Pennsylvania would certainly see more traffic.

Four states currently have state-wide tobacco ages higher than 18. In Alabama, Alaska, New Jersey and Utah, you must be 19 years of age to purchase tobacco.

In New York State, you must be 19 in Nassau, Suffolk and Onondaga Counties.

A hearing on New York City's proposal to increase the tobacco age is scheduled for May 2.