New York City Raises Smoking Age From 18 To 21

New York City raised the smoking age, officially, from 18 to 21 Tuesday, making it the first large U.S. city to do so.

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While Chicago tries to clean the air, New York City is taking a stab at reducing smoking. It's about to become the first large city in the U.S. to raise the legal age to buy tobacco products from 18, to 21.

NPR's Margot Adler reports on the effort to stop young people from smoking before they get started.

MARGOT ADLER, BYLINE: New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and city health commissioner Thomas Farley spoke today before the mayor signed the bill.

MAYOR MICHAEL BLOOMBERG: This century, a billion people will die from smoking around the world.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: In the future, we're going to look back on today as another major advance against the world's most dangerous drug.

ADLER: The bill takes effect in six months. The mayor has been in the forefront of citywide health reforms, from calorie counts in restaurants to banning smoking in bars and public parks. But the Bloomberg administration didn't initially promote the idea of raising the age you can buy cigarettes to 21. They thought the best way to reduce the number of young smokers was to raise prices and taxes.

Cigarettes are about $11 a pack, more expensive than anywhere in America. And New York City Health Commissioner Farley says that got results.

DR. THOMAS FARLEY: We had big declines in teen smoking, from 19 percent down to eight and a half percent.

ADLER: But then the decline stopped. Then they saw some new data. They saw declines in England when the smoking age was raised.

FARLEY: And then the town of Needham, Massachusetts, raised their age from 18 to 21. And they saw big declines in smoking in teenagers, as well.

ADLER: In Needham, the rate of adult smoking was 50 percent lower than the rest of Massachusetts. Farley says the vast majority of smokers start before the age of 21. He argues 20 is the age where the move from experimental smoker to regular smoker occurs.

At Hunter College, most students didn't think the bill would change their habits.

EMILY MARKS: People are still going to do what they and find ways to get what they get.

ADLER: That's Emily Marks who was sitting with a group of students outside between classes.

EDMUND MATHELIER: I actually think it sucks because I actually smoke cigarettes, and I am 18. And I feel like think he shouldn't have control over people's lives like that.

ELANA MASIKHAEV: It's bad for you.

ADLER: How old are you?

ANDREW SLOOTSKY: I am 19.

(LAUGHTER)

ADLER: Oh, my God. And you are sitting here with a cigarette in your hand.

SLOOTSKY: Yeah, I am.

(LAUGHTER)

ADLER: What are you going to do in six months?

SLOOTSKY: I guess I am going to have to get a fake ID or something.

(LAUGHTER)

ADLER: That was Edmund Mathelier, Elana Masikhaev and Andrew Slootsky. And here is 18-year-old Gaby Zenditen.

GABY ZENDITEN: If you can drive at 18 and you could go to war at 18, I think that's messed up.

(LAUGHTER)

ADLER: It's an argument that was made decades ago, when the age for legal drinking was raised from 18 to 21. I put that question to Commissioner Farley. He replied...

FARLEY: Just because people can go to war between the age of 18 and 21 doesn't mean that we ought to kill them with cigarettes.

ADLER: Washington, D.C., Hawaii and New Jersey are considering similar legislation. Cigars, cigarillos and e-cigarettes are included in New York City's bill.

Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.

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