“Old enough to fight and vote, old enough to drink and smoke.”
That tobacco industry lobby pitch to lawmakers contemplating upping the smoking age was found wanting by the Town of Hempstead Board on April 25.
Board members unanimously approved a resolution to raise the age to buy tobacco products from 18 to 21 in the town.
The trend across the nation has been growing to ban sales of not just cigarettes and cigars, but chewing tobacco, herbal cigarettes and vapor/e-cigarettes to anyone under 21. The Town of North Hempstead, Suffolk County and New York City have already passed such ordinances, and New York State seems poised to do so.
The board heard some impassioned pleas by Elmont’s Patrick Nicolosi, who argued that “at 18, you can go out and fight in a war, you can get legally married, you can hunt and do just about anything, but the Town of Hempstead says you can’t smoke.
“It’s an arbitrary age,” added Nicolosi, who donates cigars to an organization that send them to military serving overseas. “Think about those young men and women who come back and [are told], ‘Sorry, I can’t sell you a pack of cigarettes’ Yet they were in Afghanistan, fighting a war.”
Nicolosi thought the law would create a black market and that, “people who smoke will find a way to get that cigarette. Have we learned nothing from the War on Drugs? Look at the opioid crisis.”
Nicolosi was followed by representatives from the American Heart Association (Michelle Gervat), The Tobacco Action Coalition of Long Island (Carol Meschkow) and American Lung Association (Michael Seilback, whose statement was read by Meschkow).
“Studies show that raising the age to 21 will have a significant positive impact on public health,” Gervat stated, citing figures that about 73,000 high school students in New York State are currently smoking, that 99 percent of adults started smoking before the age of 25, and if youth reach the age of 21 without smoking, the chance of them starting drops to about 2 percent.
Rejecting Nicolosi’s contention, Gervat noted that the Department of Defense, in 2015, condemned the use of tobacco products among military personnel.
Councilwoman Erin King Sweeney warmly praised the efforts of Gervat and her organization, noting that she is a private supporter. “Thank you for the work you’ve done educating women on the unique risks they face with heart disease,” King Sweeney said.
Councilman Bruce Blakeman stated, “As a parent of a child with a serious heart condition, I applaud all the work you do to improve people’s health.”
Supervisor Anthony Santino said he was happy to sponsor the legislation.
Meschkow repeated the familiar refrain that smoking is the number one cause of preventable death in the country, and that the Surgeon General has determined that there is no safe level of second hand smoke and “more alarmingly, also calls smoking a pediatric epidemic.”
She detailed the tobacco industry’s efforts to target youth through marketing and advertising, with the industry lobby calling them “replacement users.”
“The younger the age [they start smoking], the greater the risk of nicotine addiction,” Meschkow observed.
Seilback, vice president for public policy and communications for the American Lung Association, summed up what medical and social science studies have discovered: “Increasing the age to 21 will significantly reduce tobacco use.”
The Concerned Citizens of the Plainview-Old Bethpage Community also submitted a written statement in favor of raising the age.
The newly enacted Chapter 121 of the town code will impose requirements for businesses selling tobacco and nicotine products to post age signs, and levy fines whose parameters are delineated by New York State Public Health Law. According to the law, enforcement officers can “impose a civil penalty of a minimum of [$300], but not to exceed [$1,000] for a first violation, and a minimum of [$500], but not to exceed [$1,500] for each subsequent violation.”
Repeated violations will result in the suspension of a retail dealer’s license to sell tobacco.