NEW YORK—The City Council voted Wednesday to raise to 21 the minimum legal age to buy tobacco products. New York City will become the first major U.S. city to enact an age restriction of 21 years once Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who supports the legislation, signs the bill. The new regulations will take effect six months after the mayor signs it.
The city began increasing restrictions on tobacco sales and banned indoor smoking in 2002. Between 2002 and 2007, the percentage of youths smoking dropped by half from 17.6 to 8.5. But after 2007, the drop in young smokers leveled off and remained stagnant at 8.5 percent. The city’s push for a higher minimum purchase age is aimed at tackling the youth smoking problem.
The bill passed Wednesday turns the focus to cutting off the cigarette supply chain to youths below the age of 18, most of whom get cigarettes largely from young people aged 18–21.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) smokers who start young have a harder time quitting, particularly those who start before age 21.
Hoping to keep cigarettes out of the price range of youth, the bills also set a price per pack minimum of $10.50, and outlawed coupons, discounts, as well as sales of multiple packs. The bill does not make it illegal for those under 21 to smoke.
Advocates for New York convenience stores and newsstands said the new restrictions won’t stop young smokers from lighting up. They just won’t buy from legitimate, licensed retailers. The group argues that the regulations will simply strengthen the underground market that sells untaxed, out-of-state cigarette packs.
“That is where the focus should be,” said Jim Calvin, president of the NY Association of Convenience Stores. He said the first step is for the city is to rein in the underground market of street-corner, back-of-the-truck sales.
“City Council is missing the point,” said Calvin, in a phone interview.
A 2011 study of littered cigarette packs in the city found that only 39 percent had the New York City tax stamp. Of those that didn’t have the city stamp, more than 70 percent were from Virginia, where the state tax is only 30 cents per pack, compared with New York’s state and city combined tax of $5.85 per pack.
Calvin also criticized the mandated minimum pricing and coupon ban. Such discounts as well as multipack sales are “the only tools we have to compete with the bootleggers,” said Calvin.
“Until you’ve got the underground, the illegal cigarettes being sold on the street corners under control, the Internet sales under control, then if you want to talk new regulation, that is a future matter,” said Robert Bookman, counsel for the NYC Newsstand Operators Association.
The Black Market Problem
Several provisions in the legislation passed Wednesday are aimed at addressing the underground market. New fines will be comprehensive in targeting people buying, selling, or transporting untaxed tobacco products. Fines will also increase for sellers of untaxed cigarettes, while stronger enforcement will target dealers caught repeatedly selling untaxed cigarettes.
“This is a bill I pushed forward since 2005. But we wanted to do the science, we wanted to do the studies, we wanted to get the data to justify it. We have the science, we have the data. This is the way to go,” said City Council member James Gennaro before the council voted to pass the bill on Oct. 30.
In formulating the legislation the council’s health committee reviewed a litany of studies of youth smoking habits, tobacco advertising, the ways young smokers get cigarettes, and how raising the buying age to 21 affects young smokers.
The bill’s supporters cited the example of Needham, Mass., which raised the cigarette buying age to 21 in 2005 and saw smoking among high school students decrease by over 50 percent.
“This I believe is the next big thing for the city and hopefully for the state and for the country,” Gennaro said. “We are the first ones to act, but once we go the dominoes are going to fall. I think this is a good thing for the city and ultimately for the state and for the country.”
The council introduced a last minute change to the bill, which will also raise the legal buying age for electronic cigarettes to 21. Electronic cigarettes were not originally included in the legislation.
The city administration also dropped one of the key provisions of the anti-smoking laws, which would have banned the display of cigarettes in stores.
The administration informed the council that that effort will be dropped temporarily since electronic cigarettes complicated the matter. The administration didn’t want to inadvertently promote electronic cigarettes, by banning the display of cigarettes while allowing the display of e-cigarettes.
With additional reporting by Epoch Times staff member Ivan Pentchoukov.