New Yorkers under 21 are no longer allowed to buy cigarettes. Credit: Getty Images
The New York City Council passed legislation today raising the legal age for purchasing tobacco products to 21, as well as a law raising the minimum price of cigarettes in the city to $10.50 and strengthening penalties against vendors who sell cigarettes on the cheap.
Councilman James Gennaro, the lead sponsor of the bill to raise the minimum age, hailed the bill as "the next big thing for the city, and hopefully for the state and for the country."
New York City will be the first major city in the U.S. to have a minimum tobacco purchasing age as high as 21.
Gennaro noted the city's aggressive work to combat teen smoking between 2001 and 2006, which has been credited with cutting the number of teen smokers in New York City down by half.
But Gennaro said progress has been stalled "since about 2007."
"We need the next big thing and this is the next big thing," he said. "I'm confident of it."
Gennaro first put the bill forward in 2005, and said since then he and his colleagues have been gathering scientific data to support their side. Now, he said, other places around the state, as well as in California and New Jersey, are considering similar legislation.
Gennaro said the bill's proponents felt it was important to push the age all the way to 21, rather than just to 19, as some areas in Nassau County, Suffolk County, and the entire state of New Jersey have done.
"We thought that that would make the best difference," he said. Places that raised the age to 19 "have made some headway," the councilman said, but in other parts of the world where the age has been raised to 21 "we saw that there was a big difference made by doing that."
He also noted findings that showed most of the people who buy cigarettes for people under 18 are under 21.
The bill was careful to include e-cigarettes as well, a move that Gennaro said they felt was "very important" in preventing 18- to 20-year-olds from becoming nicotine addicts "if not tobacco addicts." Besides, he argued, "the science on the e-cigarettes is not particularly good."
One of the bills' detractors, Staten island Councilman Dan Halloran, took to Facebook during the Council's stated meeting to announce he would be voting against both bills.
"Liberty and free markets are on the way out of NYC," he wrote.
In dismissing 250A, the bill raising the minimum age, he said: "At 18, you are old enough to serve our country in war — and to vote... You should be able to buy cigarettes."
And in answer to 1021A, the bill making cigarettes more expensive and strengthening penalties for those who sell them for less, Halloran said: "The government should not be in the business of price setting in a free market — bad enough we tax such items too much."
The bill to raise the minimum age passed by 35-10. The councilmmembers who voted against it were Charles Barron, Vincent Gentile, Dan Halloran, Vincent Ignizio, Oliver Koppell, Michael Nelson, Jimmy Oddo, Domenic Recchia, James Ulrich, and Jumaane Williams.
Councilmembers Gentile, Halloran, Ignizio, Jackson, Oddo, Ulrich, and Williams also voted against 1021-A, and were joined in that opposition by councilmembers Darlene Mealy and David Greenfield. That bill passed nevertheless, 36-9.