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New York May RaiseAge To Buy Tobacco

Lawmakers are looking to change the age at which people can buy tobacco in New York State, according to local news reports.

They are looking to raise the legal age from 18 to 19 years old. The Senate Health Committee took up the bill this week. The move also has support in the Assembly.

Other states that have recently upped the age to 19 include Alabama, Utah and Alaska.

Critics say there is no proof the bill to prohibit tobacco sales to anyone under 19 years old would achieve its aim: To reduce smoking in the earlier teen years when most smokers first light up, according to Newsday.

Officials in Alabama, where the age requirement went into effect in 1991, say they've only seen a slight improvement under the law.

State Assembly Health Committee Chairman Richard Gottfried said raising the purchasing age to 19, would allow fewer high school students to legally buy cigarettes and share them with classmates.

But between 85 and 90 percent of adults who smoke started before they turned 19, Russell Sciandra of the Center for a Tobacco Free New York told the newspaper.

Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group, a longtime opponent of major tobacco interests in Albany, said "there is simply no evidence" that raising the smoking age would curb teenage smoking. He points to a multiyear Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study showing that a greater percentage of teens in Alaska and Alabama reported trying smoking than in New York. In Utah, a smaller percentage of teens than in New York admitted smoking at least once, but that was also the case before the age to legally buy cigarettes was raised to 19.

The CDC study also found that since 1997, the number of teens trying cigarettes in New York has dropped 17 percent, more than in Utah, Alabama and Alaska.

"It's important lawmakers base decisions on evidence," Horner told Newsday. "In this case they don't have it."

Opponents also say the proposal would discriminate against 18-year-olds. "An 18-year-old is old enough to defend our country, he's old enough to marry, to vote, but we're going to tell him he can't by a pack of cigarettes?" asked New York Conservative Party Chairman Michael Long. "It's the nanny-state mentality. Lawmakers are saying, `We know what's better for you. It's all right for you to go fight in Iraq, but not to buy cigarettes."'

Horner and Long both say education is the way to cut down on teen smoking, citing numerous programs they say have led to fewer teenagers lighting up.

Jim McVay, a spokesman with the Alabama Department of Public Health, said his state's age restriction on tobacco purchases has not been very effective in curtailing teen smoking. About 25 percent of Alabama teenagers in 2003 still reported smoking at least once in the past 30 days in the CDC survey. That compares with about 22 percent of New York teens, according to the American Cancer Society.

"We have not seen a large difference between Alabama and the neighboring states," McVay told the newspaper. "We see it as just one element of an overall campaign to reduce smoking. Social norms have much more of an effect."

Andrew Rush, a spokesman for Gov. George Pataki, said that if the legislation passes both houses, the governor "will certainly take a look at it."
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