Ulster County last week became the latest New York local government to raise the age of tobacco sales from 18 to 21. The move comes after a 19-3 vote by the Ulster County legislature. The law, which goes into effect on New Year’s Day, covers all tobacco products — cigarettes, cigars, vape “juice” and snuff. The legislation also covers paraphernalia including pipes, rolling papers and hookahs.
The law comes amid a statewide push by health advocacy groups to raise the age for tobacco sales across the United States. Last week’s vote makes Ulster the 16th New York county or municipality to enact “Tobacco 21” legislation since 2014. Advocates for the law point to, as justification, statistics showing that 95 percent of tobacco users acquire the habit before age 21; those who don’t start smoking by then rarely pick it up.
“We know that 14-, 15-, and 16-year-olds get their tobacco products from older friends,” said Caitlin O’Brien, director of government relations for the American Heart Association of New York. “Those kids are likely to have friends that are 18, but at 21 they’re kind of out of their social circle.”
O’Brien said her group, along with the American Cancer Society and American Lung Association, were pursuing a county-by-county strategy in New York in hopes of eventually enacting statewide Tobacco 21 legislation. O’Brien said the new laws had received pushback from the tobacco industry and trade groups representing retailers. So far 16 New York counties, including Orange, Rockland and Westchester, as well as New York City, have raised the tobacco age.
“With all of these counties taking action we’re saving lives across the state and putting pressure on state government to act,” said O’Brien. “Unfortunately, the tobacco industry still has the power to shape some of the discussion.”
In Ulster County the law passed with backing from County Executive Mike Hein and bipartisan support in the legislature. Just three county lawmakers voted against the change — Dean Fabiano (R-Town of Ulster), Mary Beth Maio (R-Highland) Craig Lopez (R-Pine Bush). Fabiano said that he voted against the law because he felt it was wrong to ban tobacco sales to youth eligible to join the military and make other major life decisions. He added that the law would hurt small businesses already hard-pressed by high taxes and would be ineffective in teen tobacco use.
“You can get drafted into the Army at 18 but they don’t want you to smoke or drink until you’re 21,” said Fabiano. “My thing is, where does it end? It’s taking freedoms away from people.”
The Ulster County Health Department is charged with enforcing the law. Alleged violators will have the option of agreeing to a stipulation laid out by health officials or having a hearing before the health commissioner. Decisions can be appealed in state court. Penalties for violations include fines of $300 to $1,000 for a first offense and $500 to $1,500 for subsequent violations. The law also requires tobacco retailers to post signs stating the legal age for purchase of tobacco products and to require identification from any purchaser who appears to be under 30 years old.