The New York City Council has approved a measure that would make it illegal for anyone under 21 to buy cigarettes. / CBS News
NEW YORK (CBS/AP) Smokers younger than 21 in the nation's biggest city will soon be barred from buying cigarettes after the New York City Council voted overwhelming Wednesday to raise the tobacco-purchasing age to higher than all but a few other places in the United States.
City lawmakers approved the bill - which raises from 18 to 21 the purchasing age for cigarettes, certain tobacco products and even electronic-vapor smokes - and another that sets a minimum $10.50-a-pack price for tobacco cigarettes and steps up law enforcement on illegal tobacco sales.
"This will literally save many, many lives," said an emotional City Councilman James Gennaro, the bill's sponsor, whose mother and father died from tobacco-related illnesses. "I've lived with it, I've seen it ... but I feel good today."
Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is a strong supporter of the tough smoking restrictions, has 30 days to sign the bills into law. The minimum age bill will take effect 180 days after enactment.
"We know that tobacco dependence can begin very soon after a young person first tries smoking so it's critical that we stop young people from smoking before they ever start," Bloomberg said in a statement.
With Wednesday's vote, New York is by far the biggest city to bar cigarette sales to 19- and 20-year-olds. Similar legislation is expected to come to a vote in Hawaii this December. The tobacco-buying age is 21 in Needham, Mass., and is poised to rise to 21 in January in nearby Canton, Mass. The state of New Jersey is also considering a similar proposal.
Lawmakers who pushed for the change site city statistics that show youth smoking rates have plateaued at 8.5 percent since 2007.
"We have to do more and that's what we're doing today," said City Council Speaker Christine Quinn. "We have a real chance of leading the country and the world."
The city's current age limit is 18, a federal minimum that's standard in many places. Smoking in city parks and beaches is already prohibited as it is in restaurants.
Advocates say higher age limits help prevent, or at least delay, young people from taking up a habit that remains the leading cause of preventable deaths nationwide. And supporters point to drinking-age laws as a precedent for setting the bar at 21.
Some residents told CBS New York they support raising the minimum age so that young people won't get hooked.
"I think you should be 21. I think when you're 18, you just got out of high school. You don't really know life yet," a smoker said.
But cigarette manufacturers have suggested young adult smokers may just turn to black-market merchants. And some smokers say it's unfair and patronizing to tell people considered mature enough to vote and serve in the military that they're not old enough to decide whether to smoke.
"New York City already has the highest cigarette tax rate and the highest cigarette smuggling rate in the country," said Bryan D. Hatchell, a spokesman for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, which makes Camel and other brands. "Those go hand in hand and this new law will only make the problem worse."
A coalition of bodegas and tobacco store owners funded by tobacco-manufactures also slammed the council's vote Wednesday, particularly the bill that sets the minimum prices and bans tobacco product discounts and coupons.
Ramon Murphy, president of the Bodega Association of the U.S., said the new rules will drive people to illegal sellers who do not care about the age of their buyers.
Some business owners said they would lose a lot of revenue.
"I'm going to lose a lot of business," deli owner Wadah Arbuya told CBS New York. "Maybe I'm going to get hurt big time. Half my sales of cigarettes is between 18 and 21."
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