CARMEL, N.Y. - A vote on proposed legislation that would raise the smoking age in Putnam County from 18 to 21 (Tobacco 21) has been tabled until October, although based on lawmakers’ comments at the Board of Legislators’ Sept. 5 meeting, it appears there are enough votes to pass the law.
Barbara Scuccimarra (District 1), the bill’s sponsor, was initially pessimistic about its passage. The legislation needs a supermajority to pass, meaning six of the nine lawmakers would have to vote yes.
When Legislator Paul Jonke (District 6) made a motion to table the measure until October because he felt some legislators needed more time to examine the bill, Scuccimarra expressed her frustration.
“We have been discussing this since April,” she said. “This law has been in the legislature for at least a month and now, tonight, it comes under scrutiny. I don’t understand that. If [other legislators] had questions they could have come to me anytime. To say that I am disappointed is an understatement. This is something that should be passed. It’s September and the kids are back in school and it’s just going to start all over again.”
However, before the board moved on tabling the vote, each legislator was given the opportunity to express their views. While many opined that the law needed some tweaking, six legislators said they would likely vote for it, including Scuccimarra, Amy Sayegh (District 8), William Goldman (District 2), Joe Castellano (District 7), Neal Sullivan (District 9), and Carl Albano (District 5). Toni Addonizio (District 2), Ginny Nacerino (District 4) and Jonke said they would oppose the legislation.
“I know there are some concerns about the way the law is written, so perhaps it might make sense that we review it in more detail,” Albano said. “But I am very hopeful and I think we have the support of most of the legislature. I am looking forward to this moving forward in the future.”
Sayegh agreed to table the vote to give other legislators time to address their concerns about certain aspects of the law but said she hoped it would pass next month.
“I am very much in favor of passing the T-21 legislation,” she said. “I have children ages 19, 18 and 16 who are in high school and college. I think we need to support our schools. I think it’s good legislation but some legitimate questions have been asked. I think it’s important for us to pass this law but we need to look at it [more closely].”
Sullivan said he was initially opposed to the legislation, but changed his mind over the past several weeks.
“As a conservative Republican, I am one who is generally not in favor of adding rules and regulations on people’s lives and telling them how to live,” he said. “But over the course of the last month, I have listened to the experts and residents of the community. I know there is a [desire] to protect children from tobacco addiction and vaping products and therefore I support raising the age to 21. But I think we need to do some fine-tuning. But I am confident we can come back next month [and pass the legislation].”
Castellano also said he was initially dubious about the proposed law but said that with some changes to the language, he’d support it.
“I am going to be in favor of moving the age up to 21,” he said. “I thought long and hard about it. But there are some issues that need to be fine-tuned and sent back to committee.”
Addonizio said she would not likely vote in favor of the law, fearing that young clerks could be held liable should they break it and face fines as high as $1,000.
“We are all given and subject to making a mistake,” she said. “A person in the store makes a mistake; it could be one of our children working in a convenience store [and] maybe they make a mistake. They are new there, and they are subjected to that fine. What if they can’t afford to pay for it? $1,000 is quite a sum of money for someone working part-time.”
Scuccimarra pointed out that the fines would be levied at the store owner and not the employee. But Addonizio said she also worried that the law called for stores to loses their licenses if found in violation.
“There are a lot of things in here we need to look over, which we have not had the opportunity to do,” she said.,
Nacerino was the legislator most passionately opposed to the proposed law and laid out her concerns in detail. She criticized the media, as well as Scuccimarra’s Facebook page, for villainizing those who disagreed with her point of view.
“While we may differ in our opinions regarding Tobacco 21, I would expect respect for our individual opinions. Instead, attempts to disparage, demean and indoctrinate other legislators were in the media and on Legislator Scuccumarra’s Facebook page,” she said. “Perhaps in [Scuccimarra’s] attempts to be progressive, she lost sight of our core values that define democracy—our ability to speak our mind and agree to disagree. To me, this is just as much philosophical as it is about the merits of the law. I do not believe the rhetoric that fines and bans young adults from buying tobacco products. If that was the case, I don’t believe underage drinking and drugs would be so prevalent in our county and beyond.
“I believe that intervention begins at a much younger age than 18. While this legislation may feel good and sound good, I do not feel that raising the age will meet the claims set forth,” she said.
Nacerino cited a 2016 article from The Los Angeles Times that was posted on the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice website that cited studies that showed raising the smoking age to 21 does not reduce smoking in youth and can have the opposite effect.
“This seemingly common-sense approach, however, doesn’t work,” the article states. “There is virtually no systematic research showing that increasing the smoking age prevents a teen from picking up the habit.”
However, Scuccimarra noted that article is two years old and the studies it refers to were conducted before the vaping epidemic, which changed the playing field, she said. She contended that counties that have passed T-21 have seen a 12 percent drop-off in smoking among young people.
But Nacerino said the proposed law would also be a detriment to small-business owners.
“Economic drivers such as this will put a burden on mom and pop stores,” she said. “We are not only going to restrict free enterprise, but we are going to fine and punish and embarrass our businesses as well.”
Nacerino also said that the law would not treat 18-year-olds as adults, while many other laws do.
“T-21 advocates are sending a message that our 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds are incapable of making sound decisions,” she said. “They can pay taxes, join the armed forces and [vote]. They are Putnam County’s young firefighters, first responders and EMTs; they are our servicemen and women fighting for our freedoms. If they commit a crime, they are tried as an adult. But we want to strip them of their liberties and their rights to their own bodies and their own life. I have every confidence that this generation can figure it out for themselves without government handholding.”