Suffolk County is poised to be the first county nationwide keeping cigarettes out of the hands of teens as the county legislature approved a measure which will raise the age one can purchase tobacco products from 19 to 21 Tuesday night.
If signed by County Executive Steven Bellone, the countywide law will go into effect on Jan. 1, 2015.
Legislator William Spencer (D-Centerport), a doctor himself, sponsored the measure, which in the weeks leading up to the vote saw both support and opposition from county residents — including at the two-and-a-half hour long public hearing Feb. 11.
Mr. Spencer wrote the following on his Facebook wall Tuesday just after 10:30 p.m.: “Thank you to all my colleagues who supported my legislation to raise the legal age to purchase tobacco in Suffolk County to 21! This is one bill I know will save lives!!”
Newsday’s David Schwartz reported that the vote tally ended up being 10-8, adding that Mr. Bellone’s staff confirmed that he will sign the bill.
Opponents of the bill had argued their civil liberties would be encroached upon with a raise, while business owners cited a predicted loss in sales revenue.
Dr. Spencer recently said “as a public official, I think we should be making decisions based on medical evidence.”
Developmentally, people under age 21 are still too susceptible to addiction, he said.
“I don’t think we have the right to tell an adult what to do,” Dr. Spencer said. “But I choose to define an adult based on the development of the brain, as opposed to whether they can serve, they can vote, drink or work.”
Dr. Spencer said an 18-year-old is three times less likely to become addicted to smoking if they haven’t started by then — and if they are not smoking by the age of 21 — the likelihood of addiction would be 10 times less.
In 2004, Suffolk passed legislation to raise the legal age to 19. It was one of the first municipalities in the country to do so. Violators could face a fine between $300 and $1,000 for a first time offense, and between $500 to $1,500 for subsequent offenses, according to the resolution.