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If you're under 21, you may soon have a hard time lighting up in New York City. Public health officials there want to raise the minimum age for buying cigarettes. It's one of several new tobacco regulations the city council will debate today. New York already has some of the toughest anti-smoking rules in the nation, and some say the city is going too far
Here's NPR's Joel Rose.
JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Smoking rates in New York have fallen dramatically as the city banned smoking in bars, restaurants, parks and beaches. But it's not hard to find smokers on the street, like these students outside a library at New York University.
So how old were you when you smoked your first cigarette?
RUBY CHONOO: Sixteen.
ALEX WANG: Fifteen.
JUN KWON: Thirteen or 14, maybe.
THOMAS FARLEY: We think if we can prevent people from taking up the habit before they're 21, we might just be able to prevent them from taking it up at all.
ROSE: That's Thomas Farley, New York's Commissioner of Health. He says 80 percent of smokers in New York City start before they're 21. So he hopes that raising the minimum age to buy cigarettes from 18 to 21 will help cut the city's youth smoking rate. Farley is also supporting a bill that would prevent retailers in New York from displaying cigarettes behind the register.
FARLEY: That display of cigarette packs has value to the tobacco industry. They pay for that. And when children see that over and over again, they think that cigarettes are acceptable and normal, and they're more likely to smoke. And there's data to support that.
ROSE: This kind of display ban is already the law in Canada and parts of Europe. The town of Haverstraw, in Upstate New York, tried to do the same thing, but the tobacco industry sued, and town officials backed down.
James Calvin is president of the New York Association of Convenience Stores, which joined in the lawsuit.
JAMES CALVIN: Retailers have a fundamental right to display legal products that they've been licensed to sell to adult customers, who use them in spite of the known health risks.
ROSE: New York City already has the highest cigarette taxes in the country, totaling almost $6 a pack between state and city taxes. And Calvin says that contributes to a thriving black market. He says the measures New York is considering will just drive more consumers to buy from unlicensed and untaxed sources.
CALVIN: Bottom-line is we're going to lose more business, and it's not going to make much of a difference in the smoking rate because those smokers are still going to find cigarettes, but they're going to find them more cheaply than the state and the city intended.
ROSE: The New York City Council is also considering a third tobacco bill, one that would block tobacco companies from offering discounted cigarettes through two-for-one deals and other promotions. Public health experts say that could be just as important to cutting smoking rates as the other measures.
Kurt Ribisl teaches public health at the University of North Carolina.
KURT RIBISL: This is the next logical step, is to do work at the point of sale, because that's where the industry spends 86 percent of its marketing budget. And this is where New York City is trying to fight back.
ROSE: Ribisl says it's very likely that the tobacco industry would sue to block some or all of these bills from taking effect. Public health officials in New York are no strangers to industry lawsuits, and insist these bills would prevail in court. But can New York City stamp out youth smoking completely?
NYU student Kristin Chuang thinks nobody can do that.
KRISTIN CHUANG: I think it'll make some difference, but it won't end teenage smoking entirely. Obviously, the whole idea of rebellion is kind of why I feel teenagers start in the first place.
ROSE: Public health officials concede enforcement of these bills might not be perfect, but they say anything that makes it harder for kids to start smoking will help.
Joel Rose, NPR News, New York.