New York City raises cigarette sale age to 21

Lawmakers say strict limits would discourage people from becoming addicted

Buying cigarettes in New York City is about to become a lot harder for young people, as lawmakers yesterday adopted the strictest limits on tobacco purchases of any major US city .

The legal age for buying tobacco, including cigarettes, electronic cigarettes, cigars and cigarillos will rise to 21, from 18, under a bill adopted by the City Council and which Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has said he would sign. The new minimum age will take effect six months after signing.

The proposal provoked some protest among people who pointed out that New Yorkers under 21 can drive, vote and fight in wars, and should be considered mature enough to decide whether to buy cigarettes.

But the Bloomberg administration’s argument - that raising the age to buy cigarettes would discourage people from becoming addicted in the first place - won the day. “This is literally legislation that will save lives,” Christine C. Quinn, the council speaker, said shortly before the bill passed 35-10.


In pushing the bill, city officials said that the earlier people began smoking, the more likely they were to become addicted. And they pointed out that while the youth smoking rate in the city has declined by more than half since the beginning of the mayor’s administration, to 8.5 per cent in 2007 from 17.6 per cent in 2001, it has recently stalled.

Besides raising the age to buy cigarettes, the council also approved various other anti-smoking measures, such as increased penalties for retailers who evade tobacco taxes, a prohibition on discounts for tobacco products, and a minimum price of $10.50 (€7.66) a pack for cigarettes and little cigars.

The new law is a capstone to more than a decade of efforts by Bloomberg, like banning smoking in most public places, that have given the city some of the toughest anti-smoking policies in the world.

In one concession to the cigarette industry, the administration dropped a proposal that would force retailers to keep cigarettes out of sight.

City officials said they were doing it because they had not resolved how to deal with the new phenomenon of electronic cigarettes, but others worried that if the tobacco industry lodged a First Amendment challenge to the so-called display ban, it could have derailed the entire package.

The smoking age is 18 in most of the country, but some states have made it 19. Some counties have also adopted 19, including Nassau and Suffolk on Long Island. Needham, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston, raised the smoking age to 21 in 2005.

James Calvin, president of the New York Association of Convenience Stores, warned yesterday that thousands of retail jobs could be lost because the law would reduce traffic not just for tobacco, but also on incidental purchases like coffee or lottery tickets. He predicted that the law would do little to curb smoking, as it does not outlaw the possession of cigarettes by underage smokers, only their purchase.

Just before the vote, Nicole Spencer, 16, was in Union Square in Manhattan with a cigarette wedged between her fingers. “I don’t think that’s going to work,” Ms Spencer said when she heard about the plan to raise the age. She said she began smoking when she was about 13, and had no trouble getting cigarettes. “I buy them off people or I bum them off people,” she said.

Ms Spencer said she thought 18 was a reasonable legal age, echoing Councilman Jumaane D. Williams, who said he voted no because it was not right for the city to ask young people to make life-or-death decisions as police officers and firefighters yet to have “no ability to buy a pack of cigarettes.”

New York Times