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City Council Votes To Raise Cigarette-Buying Age To 21

Those Caught Selling To Underage Customers Would Face Stiff Penalties

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NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) – The minimum legal age to buy cigarettes in New York City is on the verge of being raised from 18 to 21 after a City Council vote Wednesday evening.

City lawmakers approved raising the age in a 35-10 vote at City Hall. The measure still must be signed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has pushed for the law in his latest effort to target the cigarette industry.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg on Wednesday evening released a statement expressing strong support for the bill.

“Between 2001 and 2011, New York City cut the proportion of public high school students who smoke by more than half. However, the decline in youth smoking in our city has stalled. 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 the statement. “By increasing the smoking age to 21 we will help prevent another generation from the ill health and shorter life expectancy that comes with smoking.”

Supporters believe the older age would discourage young people from starting early.

“This disease took my mother because she started smoking when she was 18, and it’s taken many other people’s mothers,” said City Councilman James Gennaro (D-Queens).

The law would be the first of its kind in the nation, but Gennaro predicts other parts of the country will follow New York City.

“Why are we doing this?” said City Council Speaker Christine Quinn (D-Manhattan). “Well, let’s look at the data. Eighty percent of adult smokers in New York City started before age 21.”

As CBS 2’s Tracee Carrasco reported, lawmakers hoped the measure would stop teenagers from taking up the habit.

“If we can take measures here in New York City to make it impossible for 18-year-olds, 19-year-olds, 20-year-olds to start smoking, then we’ll be doing a very good thing,” said City Councilman Stephen Levin (D-33rd.)

Many New  Yorkers seemed to support the proposed law.

“I think that’s how it should be,” one smoker told CBS 2′s Alice Gainer. “I think you should be 21. I think when you’re 18, you just got out of high school. You don’t really know life yet.”

“I think if they raise the limit, it would stop a lot of people from smoking,” said another man.

Some young adults — such as Noah Hyams, 20, who does not smoke – were optimistic.

“I think your average teen consumer 18 to 21 will abstain,” he said.

But critics say the bill won’t make a difference.

“I think people will still find a way to get cigarettes,” said smoker Rose Leonardo.

Some young smokers also were not so sure the new age requirement will stop anyone from buying cigarettes.

“I don’t think it will make much of a difference,” said Shabir Hamin. “If kids want to smoke, they’ll smoke.”

“I was young — I want to say 13 or 14 — and back then it was a lot cheaper; probably $5 a pack, and I just had people older than me buy them for me,” said Roya Shojaee.

The bill targets retailers rather than underage smokers themselves — a source of contention for lawmakers who opposed it such as Councilman Eric Ulrich (R-32nd.)

“I think the city council made a big mistake today, what we are doing is essentially empowering a black market,” Ulrich said. “We are hurting small businesses that rely on cigarettes to bring people in to the stores.”

Meanwhile, some business owners said raising the age would leave a noticeable dent in their revenue.

“I’m going to lose a lot of business,” said deli owner Wadah Arbuya. “Maybe I’m going to get hurt big time. Half my sales of cigarettes is between 18 and 21.”

If sellers violate the law by selling to people under 21, they would 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.

A man holds up an electronic cigarette at a store in the West Village on Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2013. (credit: Paul Murnane/WCBS 880)

A man holds up an electronic cigarette at a store in the West Village on Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2013. (credit: Paul Murnane/WCBS 880)

The measure includes electronic cigarettes, which come in flavors such as Fruit Loops, gummy bears and bubble gum.

The bill cites a report by the Centers for Disease Control that shows the number of high school students who have tried e-cigarettes has jumped six percent in the last year.

“We made great strides from 2001 to 2006 to bring down teen smoking,” Gennaro told Gainer. “We cut it in half, but we’ve been plateaued since about 2007. And we need the next big thing, and this is the next big thing.”

Advocates of e-cigarettes say the alternative smokeless cigarettes can help people quit smoking. But critics call them a dangerous gateway for teens.

Another aspect of the passed legislation would ban the discounting of tobacco products in city stores, but a plan to force stores to conceal cigarettes behind counters has been dropped from the package.

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.

Bloomberg has pushed a number of other public-health measures, such as compelling chain restaurants to post calorie counts on their menus, banning artificial trans fats in restaurants and attempting to limit the size of sugary drinks.

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