BUFFALO, N.Y. - Legislation to raise the legal age for tobacco purchases from 18 to 21 remains in committee in both the State Senate and State Assembly, as New York eyes becoming the third state in the country to enact a statewide "Tobacco 21" policy.
Several counties in New York, including Chautauqua and Cattaraugus, have already voted to raise the legal tobacco age to 21 years old. Hundreds of municipalities and counties across the country have also implemented the policy, as well as the states of California and Hawaii.
Roswell Park Cancer Institute is in "strong support" of both the Assembly and Senate bills to increase the legal age, according to a Memorandum of Support.
Dr. Andrew Hyland, the chair of the Department of Health Behavior at Roswell Park, traveled to Albany last week to advocate for the bill, which he estimates could save thousands of lives in the state of New York by leading to a 12-percent reduction in youth smoking.
More than 500,000 people in New York are currently living with chronic diseases such as emphysema, COPD and heart disease because of cigarette smoking, according to Hyland. More than 28,000 people will die this year alone due to those illnesses.
"Everybody has a story about a loved one, or a friend, that has died from tobacco use," Hyland said. "So they get it, and they understand that we at Roswell Park, we're coming at it from a health promotion standpoint."
Supporters of Tobacco 21 have pointed to a variety of benefits, including the fact that it could eliminate the risk of children obtaining tobacco from friends who recently turned 18. The vast majority of smokers also begin before the age of 21.
But when county legislatures in Chautauqua and Cattaraugus counties debated the smoking age last year, some constituents argued raising the age would be unfair and overly intrusive. Others also argued it could hurt small businesses that sell tobacco products.
Hyland said he understand the concerns, but notes that businesses sell only a small percentage of their tobacco products to people between the ages of 18 and 21.
"There's clearly a health benefit," he said. "The legislators want to do the right thing."
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