NEW YORK — No one under 21 would be able to buy cigarettes in New York City under a proposal unveiled Monday to make the city the most populous place in America to set the minimum age that high.
Extending a decade of moves to crack down on smoking in the nation’s largest city, the idea aims to stop young people from developing a habit that remains the leading preventable cause of death here and nationwide, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn said as she announced the plan. Eighty percent of the city’s smokers started lighting up before they were 21, officials say.
“The point here is to really address where smoking begins,” she said, flanked by colleagues and the city’s health commissioner, an array that signals the proposal has the political ingredients to pass, with support in the council and Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s backing.
But it may face questions about its effectiveness and fairness. A retailers’ representative suggested the measure would simply drive younger smokers to neighboring communities or corner-store cigarette sellers instead of city stores, while a smokers’ rights advocate called it “government paternalism at its worst.”
Under federal law, no one under 18 can buy tobacco anywhere in the country. Some states and localities have raised the age to 19, and at least two communities have agreed to raise it to 21.
New York would be the biggest city to do so. A similar proposal has been floated in the Texas Legislature, but it’s on hold after a budget board estimated it would cost the state more than $42 million in cigarette tax revenue over two years.
To supporters, the cost to government is far outstripped by smoking’s toll on human lives.
Public health and anti-smoking advocates say a higher minimum age for buying tobacco discourages, or at least delays, young people from starting smoking and thereby limits their health risks.