By Jake Pearson & Jennifer Peltz
Young New Yorkers who want to light up will soon have to wait for their 21st birthdays before they can buy a pack of smokes after lawmakers in the nation's most populous city voted overwhelmingly to raise the tobacco-purchasing age from 18 to 21.
The City Council's vote Wednesday makes New York the biggest city to bar cigarette sales to 19- and 20-year-olds, and one of only a few places throughout the United States that have tried to stymie smoking among young people by raising the purchasing age so high. The age limit also would apply to electronic-vapor cigarettes, and the council also approved setting a minimum $10.50-a-pack price for tobacco cigarettes and stepping up enforcement on illegal tobacco sales.
"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," Mayor Michael Bloomberg said in a statement after the council's vote.
Bloomberg, a strong supporter of tough smoking restrictions, is expected to sign the measure. The minimum age would rise 180 days afterward.
Merchants who sold to under-21 customers would face fines starting at $1,000. Repeat violations could cost them their cigarette-vending licenses.
The city's current age limit is 18, a federal minimum that's standard in many places. The city prohibits smoking in restaurants, bars, parks and beaches.
Advocates say higher age limits help prevent, or at least delay, young people from taking up a habit that remains the leading cause of preventable deaths nationwide.
But some smokers say it's unfair and patronizing to tell people considered mature enough to vote and serve in the military that they're not old enough to decide whether to smoke. And cigarette manufacturers, who argue that the city's high cigarette taxes have fueled black-market sales, have suggested young adult smokers may just turn to illicit sellers.
"This new law will only make the problem worse," said Bryan D. Hatchell ,a spokesman for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, which makes Camel and other brands.
Another anti-smoking initiative pushed by the Bloomberg administration was shelved ahead of Wednesday's vote: forcing stores to keep cigarettes out of public view until a customer asks for them.
Newsstand clerk Ali Hassen, who sells cigarettes daily to a steady stream of customers from nearby office buildings, said he didn't know if the new age restrictions would do any good.
While he wouldn't stop vigilantly checking identification to verify customers' age, Hassen doubted the new rules would thwart determined smokers.
"If somebody wants to smoke, they're going to smoke," he said.
Similar legislation to raise the purchasing age is expected to come to a vote in Hawaii this December. The tobacco-buying age is 21 in Needham, Mass., and is poised to rise to 21 in January in nearby Canton, Mass. The state of New Jersey also is considering a similar proposal.
"It just makes it harder for young people to smoke," said Stephen McGorry, 25, who started smoking at 19. He added that had the age been 21 when he took up the habit, "I guarantee I wouldn't be smoking today."