CARMEL, N.Y. - Spurred by an alarming uptick in the number of students throughout Putnam County who are using tobacco vaping products such as e-cigarettes and Juuls, County Legislator Barbara Scuccimarra (District 1) is spearheading legislation that would raise the smoking age in the county from 18 to 21.
Last Wednesday (July 25), Scuccimarra, surrounded by community leaders and representatives from not-for-profit providers, held a press conference at the Historic Courthouse in Carmel to rally support for the proposed legislation, known as Tobacco 21, which she said currently does not have the full support of the county Board of Legislators.
Scuccimarra was joined on the dais by representatives from organizations such as Communities that Care, Drug Crisis in Our Backyard, Relay for Life, the American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society. She was also joined by county legislators Amy Sayegh (District 8), who represents Mahopac, and Carl Albano (District 5), who, Scuccimarra said, are the only other legislators to express support for the measure so far. The proposed law would need a supermajority to pass (six of the nine legislators).
“I am hopeful…that we will get this out of the health committee on the 14th of August and it will go to the full legislature in September,” she said.
The complete law is yet to be written, and legislators will need to view the verbiage before deciding.
“The draft law is up for review and hopefully with the help of [County Executive] MaryEllen [Odell] we will get that out of [committee] and have it this fall to vote on it,” Scuccimarra said. “I am optimistic that with all these wonderful people behind me, the rest of the legislators will do a turnaround. I have faith in my fellow legislators. When they see the support that I have here today, and they read a little more, they will change their minds. It’s a no-brainer.”
Scuccimarra, who is chair of the health committee as well as chair of the county’s One Army on the War on Addiction Task Force, said the argument she’s heard against the proposed law is that “if you are 18 you can go to war, so you should be able to make your own decisions.”
She noted it was a similar argument used by those who opposed changing the drinking age from 18 to 21.
“When they changed the drinking age [to 21], people thought it would be the end of the world, but it wasn’t,” she said. “Understand that a 21-year-old is not going to buy a 14-year-old a vape. They don’t run in the same circles, so we have to raise the [smoking] age.”
Dr. Michael J. Nesheiwat, interim county commissioner of health, said he was in full support of the proposed legislation.
“There is no hidden secret here,” he said. “As the health commissioner, from the health department perspective, we have to do what is right for Putnam County. As you know, smoking and vaping are hazardous to your health. Throat cancer, lung cancer, esophageal cancer, renal failure, kidney failure—there is no way I cannot support this legislation.”
Scuccimarra said the vaping issue “drove the bus” inspiring the legislation as school superintendents throughout the county have become exasperated over the number of students who have developed the habit.
“I reached out to all the superintendents in the county to get their input about what they are facing in their schools,” Scuccimarra said. “They are in complete agreement that this is a problem and we need to do something.”
Dr. Frances Wills, Putnam Valley School District superintendent, said vaping has become an epidemic not just in her schools, but throughout the region.
“This feels like an answer to our prayers,” Wills said about the proposed law. “All the superintendents have been facing this accelerating epidemic of vaping in the schools. We are constantly in a situation where we are apprehending students who are caught in the restrooms using the vaping mechanisms. For us, this presents a number of issues. First, we thought we had won the war on tobacco because we had very few students smoking. Suddenly, it is back and with a vengeance. More students are addicted to nicotine and they can’t get along without that vaping. It has major implications for their health and their lives. Many parents are not even aware of what these mechanisms are; how the nicotine is being delivered to their children.”
Scuccimarra said that Mahopac School Superintendent Anthony DiCarlo sent her a letter of support for the legislation, but was on vacation and could not attend the press conference.
“The vaping discussion has become frightening and overwhelming and an incredible force within the county,” said County Executive Odell. “My discussion with the school superintendents has reinforced the fear that we all have—that the individuals we are targeting to protect are the teenagers. I believe this legislation speaks for what is important for the people of Putnam County and that is to make sure that we walk the walk and talk the talk. I know we will have some spirited discussions over the next few weeks about this, but I will tell you that the county executives in the surrounding Hudson Valley areas that I met with personally [support it]. Westchester, Nassau, Suffolk, Rockland have passed it and I think everyone understands the importance of this legislation.”
Odell agreed that it was the increase in vaping among teens that prompted the proposed law.
“I want to emphasize that while we are looking at tobacco and raising the age to 21, we are really, really focusing on the big monster here and that’s vaping,” she said. “We have to have countywide legislation and statewide and national legislation to stop this from expanding any further.”
Julie Hart, government relations director for the American Cancer Society/Cancer Action Network, said that 75 percent of New York State residents already live in an area that has a Tobacco 21 policy.
“Evidence shows that Tobacco 21 significantly reduces tobacco use rates,” Hart said. “We have the evidence that shows that about 96 percent of smokers picked up their first cigarette before they turned 21. If we can take just one action that can reduce that number, we certainly owe it to ourselves to do that.
“There is also this misconception that we have already won the war on tobacco, but the fact remains that in Putnam County, over 16 percent of residents still smoke,” Hart continued. “That number is still too high. As the county executive said, we have a real concern about electronic cigarettes. Kids are using electronic cigarettes that otherwise would never touch a [traditional] cigarette and it’s undermining all the great work that the county has done to try to reduce tobacco use.”
Caitlin O’Brien, director of government relations for the American Heart Association, said opposing arguments to the proposed law fall short.
“I think we should make something very clear and that is Tobacco 21 will be effective,” O’Brien said. “You may hear from the opposition that kids are already getting these products—already using them—so why do we need Tobacco 21? Well, when we raise the age, we eliminate the social source. We make it harder for 13- and 14-year-olds to get these products. These kids get these products from their older friends. A 14- or 15-year-old is far more likely to interact with an 18-year-old than a 21-year-old. So, when you raise the age, you are delaying and ultimately preventing initiation.”
O’Brien agreed with the others on the dais that Tobacco 21 has been successful in other communities because it includes e-cigarettes and vaping products.
“From 2014 to 2016, the rate of e-cigarette use doubled,” she said. “Twenty percent of high school kids say they have used these products. They are kids who would never go near a traditional combustible cigarette, but because these Juuls are cheap and come in flavors like Swedish Fish and crème brulee, [teenagers] snatch them right up and don’t realize they have the same amount of nicotine, if not more, as a pack of cigarettes. Given the state’s inaction on this topic, I think it’s really important that the county step up.”
Scucccimara said that should the legislation pass, it will have minimal impact on businesses that sell tobacco products.
“Businesses estimate it will be a 2 percent drop in the tobacco sales,” she said. “Two percent is not a killer.”