February 26, 2007

Legislature May Up Smoking Age

Print More

Young Tompkins County smokers may soon find it more difficult to get their fix. In a proposed anti-smoking bill referred to as Tobacco 19 (T-19), the legal age for buying cigarettes would be raised from 18 to 19 in an effort to make cigarettes less available in high schools.

Tompkins Country Legis-lator Nate Shinagawa ’05 (D-4th District) is leading the campaign for T-19.

“It is not a magic bullet but one of many ways to curb teen smoking,” he said.

Shinagawa’s support for the bill is motivated by the painful loss of his grandmother to lung cancer his senior year at Cornell, when he quit his position in the John Kerry campaign to take care of her. She had smoked since the age of 16 and passed away a week after he left to return to school.

“It had a very profound effect on me” he said. “[Smoking] doesn’t just affect you, but it affects your family and all of your friends.”

The future of the T-19 bill rests on the decision to submit it as a county reform or recommend it as a change to state legislature. If only approved as a county reform, the state will not provide funding for enforcement, putting more pressure on already constrained county budgets.

Tompkins County Legis-lator Michael Sigler (R-6th District) is opposed to the bill because he feels that “[it] will be very difficult to enforce.”

Sigler pointed to the lack of funding and the prospect of teens going to other counties or states to obtain cigarettes as issues that would make the bill problematic.

“I think the cause is noble, but no matter how you slice it you are taking rights away from people,” said Sigler, who lost his mother to smoking related illness.

Tompkins County Legis-lator Martha Robertson (D-13th District) agreed that the bill could be “very difficult to enforce” and said she felt that it “might be worth trying, but [only] on a state level” due to the costs of implementing it in the county.

“I think that the costs of smoking addiction are borne by all of us, and I think it is reasonable for the government to step in and prevent that,” Robertson said.

State approval may be a feasible goal, as four other states (Alabama, Utah, Alaska and New Jersey) have already set a precedent by approving T-19.

Furthermore, if Tompkins County decides to approve the bill, it would not be alone. Nassau and Suffolk counties in Long Island have implemented T-19 as well, a decision many hope will start a trend.

“I knew in a progressive place like Tompkins County it was just a matter of time before this became an issue,” said Common Council member Gayraud Townsend ’05 (D-4th District), who also pointed out that targeted advertising makes the 18-to 26-year-old demographic more at risk.

Advocates of the bill also stress that a great deal of support for the bill is coming from high school students, the people who will most directly feel the effects of the change.

“I really do believe when young people get behind and issue, it’s something that should be heard,” Townsend said. “We [the younger generation] are the ones who have the most to lose.”

Although some, like Sigler, worry that T-19 unfairly targets a very small demographic —18 year-old smokers — promoters feel that the youth support for the bill is too compelling to ignore.

“This comes from the people in our high schools who are seeing these transactions taking place all the time,” said Shinagawa. “That’s all the proof I need.”

Proponents of T-19 plan to present a draft of the proposed law at the March 7 meeting of the Health and Human Services Committee.