New York is closer to becoming the eighth state to raise the legal age for e-cigarette and tobacco purchases to 21.
The state Assembly voted on Wednesday to prohibit anyone under the age of 21 from buying e-cigarettes and tobacco products. The bill sponsored by Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal passed by a 105-23 vote.
Rosenthal, D-Manhattan, cited national data showing a vast majority of smokers begin using tobacco products before they're 21 years old. Tobacco 21, a group that advocates for raising the age to buy cigarettes and other products, estimates 280,000 New York children who are now under 18 will die early due to smoking.
As a former smoker, Rosenthal explained during a floor speech that she is familiar with the advertising used by tobacco companies to persuade consumers, especially young people, to buy their products.
Raising the legal age to buy tobacco and e-cigarettes, she said, could lead to a decline in the number of people smoking cigarettes and using other products.
"People know that tobacco and the nicotine can cause your death," she said. "It's a great public cost, but it is a great cost to individuals and families when they've picked up the habit."
Some Republican lawmakers questioned why the state would raise the age to buy tobacco products and e-cigarettes when, at age 18, teens can drive, enlist in the military and vote.
Assemblymember Jacob Ashby, a Republican from Castleton, thought the bill should include an exemption for military installations, such as Fort Drum in Jefferson County.
"I think it's a large overreach for this body to deny soldiers willing to defend our freedoms overseas the right to buy a pack of cigarettes," Ashby said.
Ashby was among the slim minority that opposed the bill. Other GOP lawmakers spoke in favor of the change. Assemblymember John Salka shared that he's worked as a smoking cessation counselor to help people quit smoking. He supported the bill, but asked Rosenthal whether it would apply to Indian nations that operate convenience stores across the state.
Rosenthal explained that there isn't enforcement on tribal lands.
There was overwhelming support for the change in the state Assembly. Assemblymember Deborah Glick, who had a sibling die of lung cancer due to smoking, hopes raising the legal age to buy tobacco products will prevent young people from becoming smokers.
"They need to have a period of time when they can think more clearly about what they're doing," she said.
The bill is advancing in the state Senate. It cleared the Senate Health Committee and has been moved to the Senate Finance Committee for consideration.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo, whose State of the State agenda included a proposal to raise the legal age for tobacco purchases, urged the Senate to pass the measure.
"The lifelong health effects and human misery caused by tobacco use cannot be understated and New York needs to do everything in its power to keep tobacco products out of the hands of our young people," he said.
If the state Senate passes the bill and Cuomo signs it into law, New York will join California, Hawaii, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oregon and Virginia in raising the legal age to buy tobacco products from 18 to 21.
Several New York municipalities have already increased the legal age for tobacco sales. Twenty-five local governments, including New York City and Onondaga County, have adopted legislation to prohibit anyone under the age of 21 from buying tobacco products. Cayuga County's legal age for tobacco sales is still 18.