LITTLE VALLEY, NY – The Cattaraugus County Legislature will decide Wednesday whether to pass Local Law Number 8-2016, increasing the legal age for purchasing tobacco from age 18 to 21.
The legislative meeting will begin at 4 p.m. in the County Center, 303 Court St. The Legislature’s Committee of the Whole will vote after public comments on the topic are heard.
Twelve out of 17 legislators must vote in favor of the law for it to pass, according to Cattaraugus County Public Health Director Dr. Kevin Watkins. If passed, the law would go into effect on Nov. 1, 2016.
According to the agenda posted on the county website, Cattaraugus County has the second highest percentage of smokers in the state – over 28 percent.
The county is following the precedent of neighboring Chautauqua County, which passed a similar law in May, and will go into effect on Oct. 1. Five other counties in New York also have smoking bans in place for those under 21.
Those who are hoping to see the change happen, including legislator Kenneth Dahlgren, a member of the Climate & Clean Air Coalition, believe the change will better the community.
Dahlgren stated that one of the main problems is that younger children are receiving tobacco from their 18- or 19-year-old friends who are still in high school with them. Dahlgren said he believes that raising the smoking age to 21 will make it more difficult for minors to get their hands on tobacco products and that if minors have a more difficult time obtaining tobacco products, chances are greater that they are more likely to stay away from using them.
“When you’re 14, 15 years old and it’s a big bother you’re just going to forget about it,” said Dahlgren. “When it’s easy, that’s when you’re going to have issues.”
According to a report from the U.S. Surgeon General, 95 percent of adult smokers started smoking before the age of 21 and adolescents become addicted to nicotine more quickly and at lower levels of use than adults do.
“The first four leading causes of death in Cattaraugus County are associated with tobacco use,” Watkins said. “And so, if there was a way that we could work in a way to reduce tobacco use, we wanted to come up with a way to make that happen.”
Watkins said he was not worried about the effects that the possible change could have on local businesses.
“I don’t think this is going to be a huge impact on our local businesses mainly because they have already seen a loss in tobacco sales from the Seneca Nation of Indians,” Watkins said. “That’s where most people purchase their cigarettes now.”
He also pointed out that the American Journal of Public Health noted that youths 18 to 20 make up only 2 percent of retail tobacco sales.
Watkins and Dahlgren fired back at those who argue that 18-year-olds can enlist in the military, so they should be able to choose if they want to use tobacco products.
Watkins pointed to a study by the U.S. Department of Defense that said the military annually spends $1.6 billion of taxpayer money on tobacco-related expenses, including medical care, hospitalization and lost days of work.
“We’re talking about 18 and 19-year olds in the military who still have developmental brains and we want to make sure they are mature enough that they can make good enough decisions and prolong their lives,” Watkins said.
Dahlgren added, “We want to keep our military safer. This is one way we can do that. The world didn’t end when the drinking age was raised to 21.
He also noted that 75 percent of people surveyed believe raising the age of purchasing tobacco to 21 is a good thing. “And, in fact,” he added, “70 percent of smokers believe that.”
According to Dahlgren, in 2015, Hawaii became the first state to raise the minimum age of tobacco sales to 21. California passed a similar statewide law in 2016.
St. Bonaventure University student Brian Drake, who is not a smoker, said he believes Local Law Number 8-2016 would make it harder for high school students to obtain tobacco products – but not for those under 21 who are in college.
“It would still be pretty easy for them to get between knowing those who are 21 and having fake IDs,” he said.
Drake, a native of Nassau County on Long Island, where the smoking age remains at 18, recalled stopping at a convenience in neighboring Suffolk County and being told he was not allowed to purchase a lighter because the age for purchasing tobacco and products related had been raised to 21.
It remains easy for Drake’s Suffolk County friends, however, to get their hands on tobacco products by taking the short drive to neighboring Nassau County.