(Huntington, NY) Suffolk County Legislator William R. Spencer (D-Huntington) and his colleagues made history last night. After hours of testimony on both sides of the debate, the Suffolk County Legislature approved IR 1039-2014, A Local Law to Raise the Legal Age for the Sale of Tobacco Products in Suffolk County by a vote of 10 to 8. At times the debate became contentious but eventually, late into the night, Legislators took the historic vote and Suffolk became the first county in the nation to raise the legal age to purchase tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, to 21 years old. This is a measure that most agree will not only save lives but contain health care costs as well.
“This issue is complicated but everyone agrees that smoking is always hazardous to your health,” stated Legislator Spencer. “There is no question that in the 50 years since the Surgeon General issued his first warning about tobacco, we have proven, using sound and repetitive science that the chemicals in these products are highly addictive and deadly. Keeping these products out of the hands of our teenagers will save lives.”
Suffolk County Health Commissioner Dr. James L. Tomarken agreed. He stated that research shows that when polled, “90% of adult smokers had their first cigarette before they were 18 years old and 90% of the cigarettes purchased for them were done so by those between the ages of 18 – 20.” In addition, “legal purchasers between the ages of 18 – 20 are currently the significant source of cigarettes for 12-17 year olds. Raising the legal age to purchase these products would put purchasers outside the social circles of those still in high school. This public health policy will save lives.”
The Legislature’s non-partisan Budget Review Office reviewed the issue and reported that there are approximately 1700 convenience stores in Suffolk County that sell tobacco products. They calculated that there are approximately 6000 smokers in the 19 – 20 year old age range as well. As a result, in doing the math, there are roughly 3 smokers per store with the average smoker smoking a half a pack of cigarettes. The impact of this law would be about 1.5 packs per store. According to BRO’s fiscal impact statement, if the minimum age to purchase tobacco was increased in Suffolk County, savings to the County would amount to $2.9 billion dollars over 50 years or $54 million dollars per year.
If an individual hasn’t smoked by the age of 18, they are three times less likely to smoke in their lifetime but if someone hasn’t begun to smoke by the age of 21 they are twenty times less likely to smoke in their lifetime. According to The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, the tobacco industry exploits these facts by spending an estimated $8.8 billion dollars a year targeting our young adults nationwide. Limiting access to those between the ages 18 – 21 is critical to saving lives. According to Dr. Joanna Fowler, a chemist at the Brookhaven National Lab, “Raising the legal age for the sale of tobacco products is particularly important not only because the decision making ability of the adolescent brain is not fully developed but also because of mounting evidence that the process of getting addicted to cigarettes occurs very rapidly in teenagers.”
There is precedent that shows when the legal age to purchase tobacco products is raised, especially when combined with education, smoking rates have declined and lives are saved. In Needham, Massachusetts, they conducted strenuous education campaigns from 1995 – 2005 and they saw the smoking rates drop. But when they passed the law to raise the legal age to purchase tobacco products in 2005, the smoking rates went down even further and as a consequence cancer rates fell as did health care costs.
“Suffolk County will once again be a leader in public health law,” said Michael Seilback, Vice President of the American Lung Association of the Northeast, citing the county’s early adoption of a ban of smoking in restaurants and other indoor places.” Suffolk County has been in the forefront of progressive, compassionate and common sense legislation from the bottle deposit bill to banning the deadly dietary supplement ephedra to banning the use of handheld cellphones while driving. Raising the age to purchase tobacco in Suffolk County will certainly pave the way for other municipalities to make the same, scientifically-sound public health policy decisions.
“Tobacco products are the only merchandise that we sell that, at point of sale, is 100% toxic. There is no medicinal reason to smoke,” asserted Legislator Spencer. “Every time you light-up, the smoke and chemicals you are ingestion are 100% toxic. CVS walked away from billions in revenue and are reaping the benefits of that decision. The tide is turning and as we focus on trying to keep our constituency healthy, this is a clear decision to choose to make the public healthier while saving millions of dollars.”