NYC Proposal to Raise Tobacco Purchase Age Misguided

A New York City proposal to raise the age to purchase tobacco products to 21 from 18 won’t stop young people from smoking and will instead drive them to the black market, a retail trade group said.

Many underage smokers now get their cigarettes from peers, family members or the Internet, and lifting the purchase age wouldn’t change that, said Jim Calvin, president of the New York Association of Convenience Stores in Albany.

“All that we would be doing by no longer allowing 18, 19, 20-year-olds to not buy cigarettes in our stores is encouraging those smokers to go somewhere else,” said Calvin, whose group has 1,600 members across the state.

City Council Speaker Christine Quinn’s proposal, announced yesterday, would make New York the first major city to lift the minimum age to purchase tobacco above 19. The council’s move complements efforts by Mayor Michael Bloomberg to lower smoking rates. Last month, Bloomberg proposed requiring stores to hide tobacco products from view.

“Too many adult smokers begin this deadly habit before age 21,” Quinn said in a statement. “By delaying our city’s children and young adults access to lethal tobacco products, we’re decreasing the likelihood they ever start smoking, and thus, creating a healthier city.”

Changing Course

The mayor, who is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP, has worked with the council to raise tobacco taxes and ban smoking in restaurants and bars. He previously opposed a higher purchase age. He reversed course after reviewing data from the U.K. showing it can have an impact, said Samantha Levine, a spokeswoman.

Twenty thousand public high-school students smoke in New York, and the youth smoking rate has remained at 8.5 percent since 2007, Quinn said. By one estimate, raising the threshold to 21 could reduce smoking among 18-to-20-year-olds by as much as 55 percent, said Quinn, a Democrat who is running for mayor. Bloomberg is barred by law from seeking a fourth term.

A 2006 study by the Health Department found that 37 percent of smokers purchases low-tax or untaxed cigarettes regularly from Indian reservations, the Internet or out of state. Those venues don’t enforce the city and state regulations about purchase age and drain tax revenue from government, Calvin said.

Reynolds Responds

“The way to stop teen smoking is to stop teens who are smoking, but the city council doesn’t seem interested in passing a law that makes it illegal for minors to possess tobacco,” he said in a phone interview.

Municipalities should do a better job of enforcing existing tobacco regulations instead of adding new restrictions, Reynolds American Inc. Chief Executive Officer Daniel Delen told analysts today on a conference call. The Winston-Salem, North Carolina-based maker of Camel cigarettes is the second-largest seller of tobacco in the U.S.

Altria Group Inc., the largest U.S. tobacco seller, plans to review the New York legislation and has no immediate comment, said David Sutton, a spokesman for the Richmond, Virginia-based maker of Marlboro. Newport cigarette maker Lorillard Inc. declined to comment, said Robert Bannon, a spokesman for the Greensboro, North Carolina-based company.

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