NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — Mayor Michael Bloomberg has signed a bill banning the sale of tobacco products to anyone under age 21.
The legislation makes New York the first large city or state in the country to prohibit sales to young adults.
During a bill-signing ceremony Tuesday, Bloomberg said the law will help prevent young people from experimenting with tobacco at the age when they are most likely to become addicted.
“This century, a billion people will die from smoking around the world and we don’t want any of the people who die to be New Yorkers,” Bloomberg said. “That’s the one thing we can do.”
The mayor, a former smoker, also signed companion legislation setting a minimum price for all cigarettes sold in the city: $10.50 per pack. The same new law bans retailers from offering coupons, 2-for-1 specials, or discounts.
In signing the bills, Bloomberg turned away criticism from some retailers that the measures would be economically harmful and lead to job losses.
“This is an issue of whether we are going to kill people,” Bloomberg said. People who raise the economic argument, he said, “really out to look in the mirror and be ashamed.”
City lawmakers approved raising the age in a 35-10 vote last month.
If sellers violate the law by selling to people under 21, they could be fined up to $1,000 for each violation found in a single day and up to $2,000 for a second violation. Retailers could also lose their license to sell tobacco products.
The measure applies to cigarettes, cigars and cigarillos and prohibits the sale of small cigars in packages of less than 20.
It also includes electronic cigarettes, which come in flavors such as Fruit Loops, gummy bears and bubble gum.
Health officials hope that raising the legal purchase age from 18 to 21 will lead to a big decline in smoking rates in a critical age group. A majority of smokers get addicted to cigarettes before age 21 and then have trouble quitting, even if they want to do so.
“More than 80 percent of smokers started smoking before the age of 21, so kids get addicted before they realize it. So raising the legal sales age to 21, we hope, will delay many people from starting and maybe prevent some people from starting at all,” New York City Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley told WCBS 880’s Rich Lamb. “Smoking causes heart disease, it causes stroke, it causes lung cancer, it causes chronic lung disease. So most of the major killers increase in risk remarkably from smoking.”
The ban has limitations, in terms of its ability to stop young people from picking up the deadly habit. Teenagers can still possess tobacco legally.
Kids will still be able to steal cigarettes from their parents, bum them from friends or buy them from the black-market dealers who are common in many neighborhoods.
But Farley said the idea is to make it more inconvenient for young people to get started, especially young teens who had previously had easy access to cigarettes through slightly older peers.
“Right now, an 18-year-old can buy for a 16-year-old,” he said. Once the law takes effect, in 180 days, Farley said, that 16-year-old would “have to find someone in college or out in the workforce.”
Tobacco companies and some retailers had opposed the age increase, saying it would simply drive teenagers to the city’s thriving black market.
“What are you really accomplishing? It’s not like they are going to quit smoking. Why? Because there are so many other places they can buy cigarettes,” said Jim Calvin, president of the New York Association of Convenience Stores. “Every 18-year-old who walks out of a convenience store is just going to go to the guy in the white van on the corner.”
Calvin also said the elimination of discounts would further feed the drift away from legal cigarettes and toward illicit supplies brought into the city by dealers who buy them at greatly reduced prices in other states, where tobacco taxes are low.
Earlier this year, the city marked the 10th anniversary of the Smoke-Free Air Act, which banned smoking in bars, restaurants and other indoor public spaces.
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