County Executive Mike Hein wants Ulster County to join an increasing number of communities across the country which have raised the legal age to buy tobacco products from 18 to 21. But county legislature chairman Ken Ronk says he’s not entirely convinced that the new law is needed.
Hein issued his call for “Tobacco 21” legislation as part of his Feb. 5 State of the County address. If approved, Ulster would join New York City and 10 upstate counties that have boosted the legal age for tobacco sales from 18 to 21. It’s a change long sought by groups like the American Heart, Lung and Cancer associations, which believe it could accelerate an overall decline in youth tobacco use. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, between 2011 and 2016, the number of high school students who reported smoking tobacco in the last 30 days declined by more than 15 percent to about 8 percent. A 2016 CDC survey found that 7 percent of middle school and 20 percent of high school students reported having used some type of tobacco product during their lifetime.
Proponents of Tobacco 21 laws point to research showing that parts of the human brain governing decision making and risk taking do not fully develop until the late teens or early 20s. (The same research was used to justify New York State lawmakers’ decision to raise the age of criminal responsibility from 16 to 18 last year.) Supporters of increasing the age of legal tobacco sales also note that CDC research shows that 90 percent of all smokers picked up the habit by age 18; nearly all had begun smoking before the age of 26.
“By the time someone’s 25 or 26, they’re not going to become a new smoker,” said Ellen Reinhard, director of Tobacco Free Action Communities of Ulster, Dutchess and Sullivan Counties. “So it’s great if we can delay the possibility of them picking up a cigarette for the first time.”
Reinhard said research showed raising the age on tobacco sales would likely lead to a 12 percent decline in overall smoking rates. That, she said, could help Ulster County cut a stubbornly high prevalence of smoking — 21 percent of all adults compared to 14 percent statewide.
Raising the age would also bring Ulster in line with neighboring Orange and Sullivan counties which have already passed Tobacco 21 legislation. Reinhard added that Ulster County had already demonstrated commitment to cutting tobacco use with a series of earlier initiatives dating back to the early 2000s, including retail licensing for tobacco sales and a tobacco ban in all county-owned properties.
“Ulster County has really become a leader in protecting our community and our kids,” said Reinhard.
But to become law, the Tobacco 21 initiative will need to pass muster with the Ulster County legislature. Chairman Ken Ronk said no legislation had been introduced yet, but added that he was skeptical.
“I’ve always believed that at the legal age of 18 people should be free to make their own decisions,” said Ronk. “This might just be on more way for government to protect people from their own decisions.”
Ronk said he was concerned about the impact of the new law on retailers, but added that he could be swayed if presented with concrete evidence that the new law would result in a lower risk of smoking over a lifetime.
“I’m always on board with making Ulster County healthier and if [Tobacco 21] really makes people less likely to smoke I could support it,” said Ronk. “But 18 is either going to be the age of responsibility for being an adult or it’s not.”