New York raises legal age for buying tobacco from 18 to 21

NEW YORK -- Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has targeted sugar, salt and fat in his drive to make the city healthier, turned his attention to tobacco Tuesday as he signed legislation raising the age at which people can legally buy cigarettes from 18 to 21.

The law affects the kind that produce smoke and electronic cigarettes, which have been marketed as a healthy alternative but which city lawmakers say encourage young people to pick up the nicotine habit. 

With Bloomberg's signature, New York City becomes the first major metropolitan area in the nation to have such a law. In addition to cigarettes, it prohibits retailers from selling chewing tobacco, rolling papers, pipes, powdered tobacco and small cigars to anyone younger than 21.

Critics pointed to the legislation as an example of Bloomberg trying to micro-manage New Yorkers' personal lives at the expense of small businesses who sell the targeted products. The new law requires retailers to post signs of the age requirement "in a conspicuous location" and to verify customers' ages through photo IDs.

"This is an issue of whether we're going to kill people," Bloomberg said at a City Hall signing ceremony. "This century, a billion people will die from smoking around the world, and we don't want any of the people that die to be New Yorkers."

Since Bloomberg took office, the city has passed laws limiting the use of artificial trans fats in prepared foods, and requiring major restaurant chains to list calorie counts on menus. Bloomberg has banned smoking in most public places, including parks and on beaches. His attempt to limit sales of super-sized sugary sodas remains tangled in a lawsuit.

Bloomberg, who will leave office in January after three terms, says his efforts have extended New Yorkers' life spans. But city officials say youth smoking levels, which had been declining since 2002, have plateaued since 2007, indicating that a more aggressive anti-smoking approach was needed.

"Right now, an 18-year-old can buy for a 16-year-old," the city's health commissioner, Thomas Farley, said at the signing ceremony.

The law, which takes effect in 180 days, will force a 16-year-old to find "someone in college or out in the work force" to make the purchase, which Farley said would discourage youth smoking.

So too will another bill Bloomberg signed Tuesday. That measure sets a minimum price for a package of cigarettes at $10.50.

According to the city, about 19,000 New York high school students are smokers.  It says 80% of the city's smokers picked up the habit before they turned 18.

The city of Needham, Mass., which has a population of 29,000, increased the legal age for tobacco sales to 21 in 2005 and has seen a drop of more than 50% in its youth smoking rate, the New York legislation says.


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