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Proposal to raise age for cigarette sales to 21 in Suffolk ignites heated debate

RiverheadLOCAL photo by Lisa Finn

A public hearing at the Suffolk County Legislature Tuesday on whether or not to raise the legal age from 19 to 21 to buy cigarettes and other tobacco items brought out scores of passionate speakers on the controversial issue, which also had members of the legislature sharply divided.

Speakers came from every walk of life, ranging in age from teens to former longtime smokers, from business owners who said their bottom lines would be deeply impacted by the loss of sales as smokers headed to the black market, to physicians who painted grim pictures of the statistics that indicate the lethal dangers of smoking.

New York City already raised the age to buy cigarettes to the age of 21 in October. A previous hearing on the issue was held at the Suffolk County Legislature in February.

Matt Harris, a former smoker from Huntington Station, said he quit smoking over 20 years ago. “It was one of the hardest things I ever did,” he said. Still, Harris was diagnosed with throat cancer one year ago.

Harris said when he started smoking at 15, in an attempt to look “cool,” it was easy to score a pack of smokes. “This was the 70s,” he said; there was even a smoking lounge in his Frankin Square high school.

“There was virtually no enforcement. As a child of maybe 12, it was not unusual to go to the corner store to get milk and cigarettes for my mom.”

Today, Harris, although cancer free, warned of the dire impacts of addiction to cigarettes at a young age. “Suffolk County has been at the forefront of legislation,” he said. “I’m urging this county legislature to save some lives. There are a lot of high school kids out there that still think smoking is school. If you have to be 21 to drink, you should have to be 21 to smoke.”

Experts chimed in on the merits of the bill. Patricia Bishop-Kelly of the Suffolk County Board of Health read a letter from Dr. Andrew Hyland, chair of the department of health at the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo. She said raising the minimum age would decrease access to cigarettes to kids under 18; most kids who purchase cigarettes for their younger friends, she said, are under 21 themselves.

“The modest potential revenue loss from the sale of lethal products to protect young people should not be the primary argument, but long-term health should be,” she said.

Bishop-Kelly said Hyland pointed to Needham, Mass., which raised its smoking age to 21 in 2005, and where youth smoking had shown a dramatic decline, averaging 56 percent in middle school and 70 percent at the high school level, since the age hike.

“Of the argument that this bill is taking government intervention too far, it’s necessary for government to intervene for an initiative that will improve public health,” she said.

James Kelly of Huntington Station entered written testimony from Kevin O’Flaherty of the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids into the record.

According to statistics, Kelly said, 95 percent of adult smokers begin before the age of 21, and 80 percent light their first smoke before the age of 18.

“The ages of 18 to 21 are critical when moving from experimental to daily use,” he said. “The tobacco companies have known for decades that if they don’t get them by 21, they never will, so they aggressively target that age group. Nicotine addiction keeps people smoking far beyond those ages.”

Adoption of the bill, Kelly said, would mean that for every three young people, there would be one less smoking death in the future. “We urge you to vote yes,” he said.

Legislator William Spencer ( D-Centerport), the sponsor of the bill, said while he is a physician and the bill would decrease his own profits, he pointed to the longterm costs to the public of smoking, and to the toll on lives lost.

Michael Seilback of the American Lung Association pointed to the staggering health care costs nationally, a number he said is in the billions, due to smoking and said tobacco use remains the leading cause of preventable death in the United States. “We know that nearly 1,000 kids under 18 become daily smokers every day and one third will die from this product,” he said. The Surgeon General, he added, has said 5.6 million individuals will die prematurely due to tobacco use. “The status quo is not working,” he said. “If you could save one life today, is it worth it? I think it is.”

In addition, Seilback said, the human brain at ages 18 to 21 is more susceptible to the “addictive nature” of nicotine. “Tobacco kills one of three, when used as directed.”

A measure has also been before the New York State Legislature for several years, that would increase the legal age to purchase cigarettes and tobacco products to 21, said Legislator Thomas Barraga, R-West Islip; the federal government, he added, is silent on the issue.

“The lack of effort by one body should not mean the lack of effort by everybody,” Seilback said.

Legislator John Kennedy (R-Hauppauge), stood firm on his belief that individuals old enough to serve the nation at war should be old enough to make their own decisions about smoking. Also, he said, “I can walk into a liquor store and buy a fifth of alcohol, and it will put you in a grave, but it is legal.” Kennedy also said he believes the initiative will never be enforceable.

“You have to be 21 to buy liquor. This absolutely affects people’s health, especially children,” Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) countered. Anker said she lost her grandfather to emphysema; had he not smoked, she may have had an additional 20 years with him, based on the evidence presented at the hearing, she said. “If we can stop young adults from smoking we can save their lives from addiction.”

Legislator Kate Browning (WF-Shirley), said she had concerns about smokers coming to the two Indian reservations in Suffolk County to buy cigarettes. As a military wife and mother, she said raised the issue of government intervention. “We can force someone to go to a military draft, as they did in Vietnam, but they can’t buy a cigarette? Government can’t go on trying to control people’s lives.”

Business owners spoke out fiercely against the measure, which they said would deeply impact their bottom line. Michael Watt of the Long Island Gasoline Retailers Association, which as over 600 members across Suffolk County, said raising the age to 21 would drive more smokers to the black market and to the reservations, where the laws are “virtually unenforceable.”

The black market is already a challenge, he said, with 60 percent of cigarettes smuggled in. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, or ATF, said the “number one black market commodity” remains cigarettes, Watt said. He added that he would have no issue with a statewide measure to raise the age to 21. “As long as it’s a level playing field,” he said.

Patricia Orzano, a West Babylon resident who owns a 7-Eleven three blocks from the Amityville border, said she stands to profit from the Suffolk County initiative as smokers head to Nassau County. Both her husband and smoke, she said; her husband has recently battled chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD. She said cigarette sales in Suffolk County at 7-Elevens equal $98 million, divided by 133 stores.

Also at stake, she said, is the loss of additional revenue from products smokers buy when they come in for a pack of cigarettes, including milk, lottery tickets chips, and other items. Only one in ten smoker buys only cigarettes when they frequent the store, she said. About 20 percent of sales of tobacco sales is attributed to 19 and 20 year olds, she said.

“They grew up with Slurpees, and Big Gulps,” she said. “Today they buy energy drinks. A 50-year old might buy milk and beer but not the array of products the millenium generation purchases. They make up a very large proportion of the sale of other products.”

Cigarettes also account for 28 percent of sales, she said. Profit margin on a single pack equals about 16 percent, she said.

Jack Rugan, vice president of the United Franchise Owners of Long Island said the measure would be just another burden on “law-abiding cigarette retailers. These are young adults. You cannot legislate individual freedoms and morality.”

Legislator Tom Cilmi (R-East Islip), suggested that with the county standing to lose $4.25 million in sales tax revenue, one alternative might be to segregate those funds and use them toward tobacco education; raising the age to 21, he said, could diminish the county’s capacity to provide funding for such programs.

Other speakers said they believe a multi-pronged approach, with the raised age to 21 coupled with education.

Andrea Nydegger, a social worker at Eastern Suffolk BOCES who works in the Mattituck School District, said she is most concerned about electronic cigarettes, used to vaporize liquid nicotine, which she said are on the rise, even while there has been a documented decrease in cigarettes among young people as traditional smoking becomes less
socially acceptable.

Even school valedictorians and student athletes, she said, are using the e-cigarettes. Nydegger said she is worried about lifelong addiction to nicotine, as the long-term affects of the products remain unknown.

“The amount of kids using electronic cigarettes is very rampant,” she said.

Nydegger brought students, who spoke up about what the dangers they see firsthand at their school.

Mattituck student Brittney Longley said she has seen an increase in electronic cigarettes, even on the school bus; she said a smokers’ corner exists right near the school.

“I think getting to the source of it would help decrease a lot of the problem,” Longley said.

Mattituck student Nicole L’Hommedieu wore her Navy Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps uniform to the hearing; members of the legislature applauded both young women and asked if L’Hommedieu was pursuing a military career. She said it was a possibility.

“Do you think it’s right for us to take choices away from you?” asked Legislator Tom Muratore (R-Ronkonkoma). He added education was critical, not taking away individual choice.

“It’s a health risk,” L’Hommedieu said.

Anker thanked the girls for speaking up for what they believe in. To L’Hommedieu, she said. “You will possibly be defending our rights, our freedom, but you are also protecting our health and our lives. That’s what you are doing today, protecting the lives of people you don’t even know.”

Hampton Bays student Christian Nydegger, 16, said while he has no formal stance on the issue, he has seen an uptick in kids smoking e-cigarettes and driving to the Shinnecock Reservation for cigarettes.

Both Legislator Spencer and Lori Benincasa, director of the Suffolk County Office of Health Education, agreed a multi-pronged approach was needed.

Benincasa added that curriculum already exists in schools and enforcement happens on a daily basis. She said the impact to businesses by raising the age to 21 would be minimal, because with 1700 vendors in Suffolk County and 5200 smokers between the ages of 19 to 20, that averaged about three per vendor, or 1.5 packs per vendor, per day.

“We’re not talking about a resolution that’s going to bring businesses down,” she said.

Others said during a time when many businesses are starting to forego cigarette sales, the spectre of hefty fines, of up to $1000 for a first offense and $1500 for a second offense, could pose a heavy burden.

Kym Laube, of the Quality Consortium of Suffolk County and the Human Understanding and Growth seminars, or HUGS, a group dedicated to alcohol and drug prevention in teens, said the brain of a young person is not fully “hard wired” until the age of 25.

“When we put substances into that developing brain, it’s a perfect storm for future addiction and health risks,” she said.

The hearing was closed; the legislation will now go before the committee with a vote at a future date.

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