Tompkins County, N.Y. — Legislators have passed a local law to raise the tobacco purchasing age to 21 in Tompkins County.
The local law is meant to reduce the number of people of all ages who use tobacco, especially children. Public opinion on the issue has been mixed, but no matter what side people are arguing on, no one disagrees that fewer children should be smoking.
Legislators voted 9 to 5 in favor of the resolution Tuesday. Legislators Dan Klein, Mike Sigler, Peter Stein, Will Burbank and Carol Chock voted no.
Those in favor of the law have cited research that shows raising the purchase age to 21 reduces access to cigarettes to people younger than 18. However, people against the law say at 18, people are adults and should be free to make their own choices. At 18, people can choose to enlist in the military and go to war, sign massive loans to go to college, donate organs and many other things.
Legislator Mike Lane, D-Dryden, said though age 18 makes someone an adult legally, the age of maturity is another matter.
“I believe that 18 to 21-year-olds still have a little maturing to do and this well help them make better decisions,” Lane said.
Legislator Anna Kelles, who chairs the Health and Human Services Committee, which brought the legislation forward, emphasized that the proposed law would not criminalize people under 21 for smoking, but it would penalize vendors who sell to people who are under 21.
Kelles said the average initiation age for smoking is 13, and shifting the tobacco purchase age from 18 to 21 significantly impacts the younger age group.
“That’s the age group we’re really targeting here, and that’s really important to me,” Kelles said.
Legislator Martha Robertson, D-Dryden, said this law does not prevent children from smoking, but it makes access harder.
“This does not cut down on children’ss opportunity to smoke … it just makes it maybe a lot harder to get it. Research has shown in the initiation, in first days of starting or not, those barriers can make a difference. Those barriers can keep someone from starting,” Robertson said.
Legislator Mike Sigler, R-Lansing, has vocally opposed the law from the beginning and said ultimately, the law comes down to 18-year-olds who “do have rights and are adults,” he said. Sigler said the law basically says to 18-year-olds, “you’re and adult, but we don’t trust you.”
One concern raised during the public hearing April 18 was the impact this law will have on local businesses. Legislator Rich John, who represents a lot of students and much of the Ithaca Commons in District 4, brought up this issue and said this vote was one of the more difficult he’s had to make as a legislator.
During the public hearing, Charles McAvoy, who has invested downtown in vape shops including Headdies Pipe Shop and has a vape chain called Vape Dragons, said the law would impact his business. At the public hearing, he also said vaping is not “big tobacco” and has helped people quit smoking cigarettes.
“This is taking away some freedom,” John said. Ultimately, the health benefits and helping to cut access to younger children swayed him, he said.
Tompkins County is not alone in raising the tobacco purchase age. Other counties, including Albany, Schenectady, Chautauqua, New York and Cortland, have also raised the purchase age. There is also a statewide effort to raise the age to 21.
The law officially goes into effect 60 days from Tuesday.
Update (10:30 a.m.) — This posted was updated with more information from its original version Tuesday.
Featured image: Legislator Anna Kelles speaks in favor of passing the local law May 2. Kelsey O’Connor/Ithaca Voice