The City Council soon may be voting on legislation that would hike the smoking age to 21 and reduce the visibility of tobacco products in stores.
According to City Council sources, the two bills will be up for a vote this fall.
Proponents of the legislation believe that the adoption of these bills will lower the percentage of smokers in the city.
Anti-smoking activist Phil Konigsberg of Bay Terrace is an ardent supporter of the legislation and shares the goal of the proposals to lower the smoking rate in the city.
“It think that it is very important for the minimum age to be raised to 21,” Konigsberg said.
He believes that increasing the smoking age will reduce the probability of individuals who are just below that age getting cigarettes from someone at or above it.
“If you raise it to 21, you’re a 16- or 17-year-old, they’re probably not going to be friendly or hang out with kids that are no longer kids; they’re adults, who are 21 or older,” he said.
Smoking is an emotional issue for Konigsberg, who has spoken about it in front of the City Council and cannot be around smoke due to respiratory problems that have led to radical changes in his personal life and those of the people around him.
He feels that “vulnerable” and young individuals should not be led down a dangerous trail by the tobacco industry.
“It is very important that we stop the tobacco industry from getting what we call a ‘replacement smoker,’” he said.
He feels that the tobacco industry’s quest to find “replacement smokers” is a part of its efforts to maintain its business model.
“They have to have a continuous source of income,” he explained.
Konigsberg feels that reducing the visibility of cigarettes can lower the likelihood of having interest in them.
“If you go into a convenience store, or a bodega, you notice all the cigarettes are on eye level for kids. So, when they are going to buy their candy, not only are they seeing candy, they are seeing cigarettes,” he said.
However, the issue of cigarette visibility may lead to further costs for store operators. This is an issue of concern to Councilman Leroy Comrie (D-St. Albans), leader of the Queens delegation and, despite some concerns, a supporter of the proposed legislation.
“I am concerned about the cost of small businesses having to cover up the displays,” he said. “Small business have enough expenses and costs doing business with the city already.”
But Comrie believes that problems with the legislation can be resolved by amending it.
Adoption of that bill is not, however, an option in the mind of longtime smoking activist Audrey Silk of Brooklyn. Silk, who says she represents a group called Citizens Lobbying Against Smoker Harassment, believes the proposals are another salvo fired by politicians against smokers. But she has special disdain for the proposal to reduce cigarette visibility. “It’s an assault on free will by the ‘thought police,’” she said.
“The “anti-smoker proponents’ intent to hide it from view is to ‘denormalize’ (their word) smoking but that cannot be accomplished without ‘denormalizing’ smokers because cigarettes don’t smoke themselves,” she said in an email.
She feels that the attacks against smoking are inappropriate in nature and an attack on smokers’ rights.
“I strongly refute the say-it-long-and-loud-enough-it-becomes-the-truth mantra that ‘smoking is not normal.’ It is normal, has been normal for centuries, and is a legal product and otherwise legal activity,” she said.
The idea of hiding cigarettes in stores was first proposed by the upstate New York Village of Haverstraw. The village voted in favor of the plan last year, but subsequently faced opposition from a coalition that included several tobacco companies, smoking rights activists and convenience store owners.
According to published reports, the lawsuit was waged because the tobacco companies and their supporters believed the proposal was an assault on the First Amendment rights of store operators.
The mayor of the village, Michael Kohut, said to the Rockland County Times in the midst of the opposition, “They are big corporate America going after the little guy, basically.”
Fearing financial trouble stemming from the lawsuit, the village repealed the proposal.
However, Konigsberg believes the proposal would have a better chance of survival in America’s most prominent city, which he said would fight any efforts against the law.
He cited an old truism to say why the bill should be adopted.
“So, out of sight, out of mind,” he said.