New York City Raises Legal Age to Buy Tobacco Products to 21

Issue 23, Summer/Fall 2014

Tough new law is the first for any major U.S. city

Legal age

People under the age of 21 won't be able to legally buy tobacco products in New York City beginning in the spring of 2014, due to new legislation that makes America's largest city also one of the toughest for young people to smoke in.

The legislation was signed in November by then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg - a long-time antismoking crusader - as part of a package of bills aimed at lowering city smoking rates.

"This is literally legislation that will save lives," Christine Quinn, former City Council speaker told The New York Times at the time.

The move puts the city in the forefront of efforts to cut smoking rates, since the legal age to buy cigarettes elsewhere in the United States is typically 18, with a few states pushing the age to 19, The Times noted. In fact, the legislation made New York the first large city to prohibit sales to young adults.

City council also pushed through other antismoking measures in the same bill, including raising the minimum price of a pack of cigarettes or cigarillos to $10.50, banning discounts on tobacco products, and imposing tougher sanctions for retailers who tried to bypass tobacco taxes.

Although raising the legal smoking age to 21 was met with resistance from some smokers, the Bloomberg administration countered that it would help reduce the number of young people who became addicted to tobacco in the first place.

Anti-smoking efforts were a major focus of Bloomberg's three terms as mayor. Early on, he fought hard - and won - to ban smoking in almost all public spaces. Smoking in the city's bars, restaurants, parks and beaches is now illegal.

But in raising the new age to buy cigarettes to 21, officials noted that while the youth smoking rate in the city had dropped from 17.6 percent in 2001 to 8.5 percent in 2007, that trend has since slowed.

Will the new legal age budge youth smoking rates in the city even lower? Speaking to The Times, 16-year-old smoker Nicole Spencer was dubious, noting that she began her own cigarette habit at 13. "I buy them off people or I bum them off people," she said.