The New York City Council voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to raise the age for purchasing cigarettes from 18 to 21, a move that would make the nation's most populous city among only a handful in the United States to target young smokers by barring them from buying smokes. It also approved a bill that sets a minimum $10.50-a-pack price for tobacco cigarettes and steps up law enforcement on illegal tobacco sales.
"This will literally save many, many lives," said an emotional City Councilman James Gennaro, the bill's sponsor, whose mother and father died from tobacco-related illnesses. "I've lived with it, I've seen it ... but I feel good today."
Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is a strong supporter of the tough smoking restrictions, has 30 days to sign the bills into law. The minimum age bill will take effect 180 days after enactment.
"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," Bloomberg said in a statement.
With Wednesday's vote, New York is by far the biggest city to bar cigarette sales to 19- and 20-year-olds. Similar legislation 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 is also considering a similar proposal.
Lawmakers who pushed for the change cite city statistics that show youth smoking rates have plateaued at 8.5 per cent since 2007.
"We have to do more and that's what we're doing today," said City Council Speaker Christine Quinn. "We have a real chance of leading the country and the world."
The city's current age limit is 18, a federal minimum that's standard in many places. Smoking in city parks and beaches is already prohibited as it is in restaurants.
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.
Smoker Stephen McGorry, 25, agreed with that view as he took a drag outside a midtown Manhattan bar.
"It just makes it harder for young people to smoke," said McGorry, who started lighting up at 19. He added that had the age been 21 when he took up the habit, "I guarantee I wouldn't be smoking today."
But cigarette manufacturers have suggested young adult smokers may just turn to black-market merchants. And 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.
"New York City already has the highest cigarette tax rate and the highest cigarette smuggling rate in the country," said Bryan D. Hatchell , a spokesman for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, which makes Camel and other brands. "Those go hand in hand and this new law will only make the problem worse."
A coalition of bodegas and tobacco store owners funded by tobacco-manufactures also slammed the council's vote Wednesday, particularly the bill that sets the minimum prices and bans tobacco product discounts and coupons.
Ramon Murphy, president of the Bodega Association of the U.S., said the new rules will drive people to illegal sellers who do not care about the age of their buyers.
Another anti-smoking initiative pushed by the Bloomberg administration was previously shelved ahead of Wednesday's vote.
The mayor proposed in March a bill modeled on laws in Iceland, Canada, England and Ireland to require shops to keep tobacco products in cabinets, drawers, under the counter, behind a curtain or in other concealed spots until a customer asked for them. He said the displays "invite young people to experiment with tobacco."
But a similar measure had been rescinded in suburban Haverstraw, N.Y., after cigarette manufacturers sued. They said it violated their companies' free speech rights to communicate with consumers about their products' availability and prices.
The city Health Department said in a statement that the measure was taken off the table because "with the arrival of e-cigarettes, more time is needed to determine how best to address this problem."
E-cigarette makers say their products are healthier than tobacco, and a trade association leader bristled at the city's proposal to prevent people under 21 from buying them.
"Is 21 the right number? People can join the Army at 18," said Ray Story, founder of the Atlanta-based Tobacco Vapor Electronic Cigarette Association.
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.