Ulster County lawmakers vote to raise tobacco purchase age to 21

The Ulster County Legislature voted unanimously Tuesday to raise the age for tobacco purchase to 21.

When the law goes into effect Jan. 1, 2019, Ulster will 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.

Next up for the anti-smoking crusaders? A state-wide law.