Signed into law on Monday, the Suffolk Legislature’s Tobacco 21 bill raises the age in the county for buying cigarettes, chewing tobacco and other tobacco products from 19 to 21, after it narrowly passed 10–8, including a “yes” vote from South Fork Legislator Jay Schneiderman.
“I can’t think of anything really redeeming about cigarettes, personally,” Schneiderman, of Montauk, said Tuesday. “They’re poisoning and addictive. They kill people in several different ways.”
He acknowledged that people can make the choice of whether to smoke for themselves, but said that, like with alcohol, there should be an age cutoff. “At what age does government try to stop people from harming themselves and other people?” he asked. He said it simplifies things to match the legal drinking age of 21, but there are also a number of physiological reasons to support using that age as the benchmark.
People who begin smoking before age 21 are much more likely to develop a life-long addiction, Schneiderman said, citing expert testimony delivered to the county legislature.
“I believe this is the direction the country will go,” Schneiderman said. “We’re a little bit ahead of the curve—not a lot.” He predicted that within the next few years 21 will become the national age for purchasing tobacco products. “I think we’re on the right side of history here.”
Reasons others cited for opposing the age increase included personal freedom and a loss of tax revenue, according to Schneiderman. But he said the county’s budget review office ran the numbers and found that the county will save money in the long run. The county is responsible to pay for a portion of Medicaid bills, and fewer smokers means fewer medical problems, he explained.
“Protecting public health is a fundamental function of government,” the legislator said. “This is exactly what we’re supposed to be doing, protecting innocent people.”
This law only prohibits the selling of cigarettes and other tobacco products to those under the age of 21; it does not stop 18, 19 and 20 years olds from smoking freely. However, Schneiderman said the bill will still have an effect on the teen smoking rate. “We do believe that, based on studies, this move to raise the age will significantly reduce the access,” he said, adding that studies find it is often 18,- 19- and 20-year-old that introduce teens as young as 14 to smoking.
Schneiderman noted that at the Shinnecock Indian Reservation in Southampton the tobacco retailers will still be subject to adhering to age 18, the current federal age for purchasing tobacco products. They are not required to observe the county’s age restriction.
The law becomes effective January 15, 2015.