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New York Tobacco Regulations Light Up Public Health Debate

The New York City Council is considering a number of regulations on cigarettes, including raising the minimum age for buying cigarettes to 21.
John Moore
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The New York City Council is considering a number of regulations on cigarettes, including raising the minimum age for buying cigarettes to 21.

If you're under 21, you may soon have a hard time lighting up in New York City. Public health officials in New York want to raise the minimum age for buying cigarettes.

The initiative is one of three proposed tobacco regulations the City Council will debate at a hearing Thursday afternoon.

"We think if we can prevent people from taking up the habit before they're 21, we might just be able to prevent them from taking it up at all," says New York Health Commissioner Thomas Farley.

City officials say 80 percent of smokers in New York start before they are 21.

New York already has some of the toughest anti-smoking laws in the country. Smoking rates in the city have fallen dramatically as it has banned smoking in bars, restaurants, parks and beaches. But the city's teenage smoking rate has held steady for several years at roughly 8.5 percent.

City officials are also considering a second bill that would prevent retailers in New York from displaying cigarettes behind the register.

"That display of cigarette packs has value to the tobacco industry," Farley says. "They pay for that. And when children see that over and over again, they think that cigarettes are acceptable and normal. And they're more likely to smoke. And there's data to support that."

That kind of display ban is already the law in Canada and parts of Europe. The town of Haverstraw in upstate New York tried to do the same thing. But the tobacco industry sued, and town officials backed down.

"Retailers have a fundamental right to display legal products that they've been licensed to sell to adult customers who use them in spite of the known health risks," says James Calvin, president of the New York Association of Convenience Stores, which joined in that lawsuit.

New York City already has the highest cigarette taxes in the country, totaling almost $6 a pack between state and city taxes. Calvin says that contributes to a thriving black market. He says the measures New York is considering will just drive more consumers to buy from unlicensed and untaxed sources.

"Bottom line is, we're gonna lose more business," Calvin says. "And it's not gonna make much of a difference in the smoking rate. Because those smokers are still going to find cigarettes, but they're going to find them more cheaply than the state and city intended."

The New York City Council is also considering a third tobacco bill: one that would block tobacco companies from offering discounted cigarettes through two-for-one deals and other promotions. Public health experts say that could be just as important to cutting smoking rates as the other measures.

"This is the next logical step: to do work at the point of sale," says Kurt Ribisl, who teaches public health at the University of North Carolina. "That's where the industry spends 86 percent of its marketing budget. And this is where NYC is trying to fight back."

Ribisl adds that it's likely the tobacco industry would sue to block some or all of these bills from taking effect. Health officials in New York are no strangers to industry lawsuits and insist these bills would prevail in court.

But can New York City stamp out youth smoking completely? Several young smokers interviewed outside a library at New York University say that's not likely.

"I think it'll make some difference," says New York University student Kristin Chuang. "But it won't end teenage smoking entirely. The whole idea of rebellion is kind of why I feel teenagers start in the first place."

Public health officials concede enforcement of these bills might not be perfect, but they say anything that makes it harder for kids to start smoking will help.

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Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.
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