State Senate Considers Upping Tobacco Purchase Age To 21

Chautauqua County legislators considered and approved a local law last year to increase the tobacco purchase age.

At that time, the county became the third municipality — and the first in Western New York — to bump the age from 18 to 21.

Last week, Tompkins County became the seventh municipality, with six counties and New York City, to enact a tobacco purchase law to 21. Nassau and Onondaga counties bumped the age to 19.

While a growing number of counties continue to consider the change, a bill is moving in the Senate to make the purchase age of 21 a law statewide.

The bill, sponsored by state Sen. Diane Savino, D-Staten Island, and Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal, D-Manhattan, recently gained a bit of momentum after years of going nowhere. Legislation moved out of the Republican-led Senate Health Committee and was committed to the Finance Committee, which is chaired by state Sen. Cathy Young, R-Olean.

Savino’s bill is similar to the county’s local law as it would ban those under 21 from buying tobacco products as well as liquid nicotine and electronic cigarettes. Justification behind Savino’s bill states that 55,000 youth under 18 become regular smokers every year, and many of them tried their first cigarette before entering high school.

In addition, the bill states that New York spends over $8 billion caring for people made sick from smoking.

“By raising the legal purchase age to 21, we will help prevent a generation of New Yorkers from becoming addicted to smoking and ultimately save thousands of lives,” according to the memo by bill sponsors. “By delaying children and young adults access to tobacco products, we will reduce the likelihood they ever start smoking and therefore create a healthier state.”

While there’s been a decrease in cigarette smoking among high school youth over the years, 4.3 percent in 2016, use of e-cigarettes have increased. Between 2014 and 2016, the state Health Department found use of e-cigarettes doubled from 10.5 percent to 20.6 percent.

Young said legislation is under review and would likely require some form of public hearing before it would be considered before the full Senate.

“I have the utmost concern for people’s health and the long-term health costs associated with teen smoking,” Young said. “It is a difficult issue because our laws have mixed messages about when people become adults and are capable of making their own choices.”

As county legislators considered the law last year, a piece of the discussion surrounded whether to include e-cigarettes and liquid nicotine. The vape industry and e-cigarette users visited the legislative chambers in Mayville to urge legislators to take vaping products out of the bill.

Part of their plea surrounded the view that use of a vaporizer is different than smoking tobacco. Unlike a cigarette where tobacco is burned, opponents to the law said the vaping process is similar to putting a pot of water on an electric stove to boil.

“Nothing is burnt and smoke is not produced,” said Brian Ellis wholesale sales manager and store manager of Yeti Premium e-Liquids and Yeti Vape in Jamestown, at last year’s County Legislature meeting.

A push was made to strike out e-cigarettes and liquid nicotine, but it didn’t get enough backing. Following legislative approval and a public hearing, County Executive Vince Horrigan signed the local law, which took effect Oct. 1.

Christine Schuyler, county public health director, led the push to increase the tobacco purchase age. Schuyler said she’s excited to see the state taking up the issue and noted that such laws are proven to discourage youth from becoming addicted to nicotine, reduce tobacco use and prevent cost tobacco-related disease.

“New York state has been a leader in tobacco cessation initiatives and I’m hopeful that this legislation will pass,” she said. “Our state lawmakers should listen to what is happening in counties around the state like Chautauqua County and in New York City where Tobacco 21 laws are already in effect.”

While the Senate considers the bill, Assemblyman Andy Goodell, R-Jamestown, said he hopes the Assembly takes it up as well.

“I support all these efforts to discourage tobacco use,” he said. “Very quickly, people get addicted to a substance that has a long-term, detrimental impact. The good news for people who are able to quit, and it takes tremendous amount of effort and commitment, is that a lot of the health effects are reversible.”

As of 2016, the county was ranked ninth in the state for adults who smoke. As of June 2016, the state Health Department reported a county smoking rate of 24.7 percent, which is higher than the 15 percent state average.