A proposal to raise the legal age to buy cigarettes from 18 to 21 is the latest in a series of city bills to curb smoking. Speaker Christine Quinn (D-Manhattan) and Health Commissioner Thomas Farley announced the proposal, which anti-smoking advocates argue will limit young people’s access to tobacco products and help reduce smoking addiction, on Monday.
While the age to purchase cigarettes would be 21, the same age at which it becomes legal to purchase alcohol, the measure would not prohibit people under 21 from possessing or smoking cigarettes.
On a typical school day, throngs of smokers hang out across the street or down the block from their schools. Many high school students who began smoking in their teens are unenthusiastic about the proposal.
“I think it’s stupid,” Sydney S., a Francis Lewis High School student, said. “Once a kid hits 16 or 17 their common sense kicks in and they should have a choice. They don’t give us rights. They’re crossing a line between trying to keep us safe and trying to dictate our lives.”
“I think it’s very unfair because when you turn 18 you’re a legal adult,” said Andrew Martucci, a Forest Hills High School student.
While the students protest the curtailment of their rights, nearly all of them also insisted that changing the law would be ineffective at stopping underage people from obtaining cigarettes.
“People have places to get them anyway,” Nya S., a Francis Lewis High School student said.
Many students reported that they have no trouble purchasing cigarettes at convenience stores that sell to them without asking for IDs, or finding friends who are 18 or older to buy for them.
“The only thing stopping kids is that it’s so expensive,” Nicholas Park, a Francis Lewis High School student, said.
“If I didn’t buy packs I’d be a billionaire,” Forest Hills High School student Grant Feder said.
Despite the expense, many of the students smoke because they perceive social benefits. Many started due to a combination of peer pressure and curiosity.
“A lot of kids pick up the habit when they start to cut class and hang out outside,” Eric Moom, a Francis Lewis High School student, said.
The high school students were aware of the health risks, but not very concerned about them. “A lot of them think ‘If I smoke for a few years nothing’s going to happen,’” Sydney S. said.
“Since we’re young, we’re too stupid to care,” Park said.
That may be the idea behind the bill.
“This is a very bold and progressive policy that the New York City Council and Speaker Quinn have put forward,” said Yvette Buckner, the borough manager of Queens Smoke-Free Partnership.“I believe that raising the age for access to tobacco will reduce access for youth, save lives, and millions of dollars,” Buckner said.
Joan Bush, a health educator for the North Shore-LIJ Health System, supports the proposal because “it gives the opportunity for most students to become college age and have more maturity under their belt.”
If the bill passes, New York City will have the strictest limits of any large American city. Needham and Canton, Mass. are the only places in the country where the age to buy cigarettes is 21. The smoking age is 18 in most of the country, except for some states and counties where it is 19, including Nassau and Suffolk counties on Long Island.
Norman Feroz, the owner of Lucky Corner convenience store on 63rd Drive in Rego Park, said that increasing the age would not affect his business because most of his cigarette customers are older. Feroz noted that he lost a lot of customers when the tax increased a year ago and said he only makes 3 cents per pack.
Phil Konigsberg, a smoke-free advocate on the Queens Tobacco Control Coalition, supports raising the age as well as a proposal requiring stores to conceal cigarettes out of sight because young people are susceptible to advertising and displays.
Almost 100,000 New Yorkers between the ages of 18 and 24 smoke according to surveys conducted by the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. The data indicates that the transition from experimental to regular smoking typically occurs around age 20.