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NY's Tobacco Age Increase Leads to Less Compliance

NEW YORK — The New York City Council may have raised the legal age to buy tobacco products, but not all retailers are on board with checking for proof of age. 

The council voted to hike the purchasing age from 18 to 21 in late 2013. However, according to researchers with New York University (NYU) and the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), compliance with ID checks has significantly decreased since the law went into effect. Prior to the age hike, 29 percent of retailers sampled were non-compliant. Following the change, a full 38 percent of retailers sampled did not ask for ID when selling cigarettes to young people. 

The researchers also examined new minimum price laws for cigarettes and found a similar pattern, according to NYU.

The research, "Retailer Compliance with Tobacco Control Laws in New York City Before and After Raising the Minimum Legal Purchase Age to 21," was published in the journal Tobacco Control.

In May 2007, the Institute of Medicine recommended increasing the purchasing age of tobacco to 21, but there has so far been little empirical evidence of the effectiveness of this policy recommendation, according to NYU.

In the first part of the data collection effort, field researchers purchased 421 packs of Marlboro Gold cigarettes at 92 bus and subway stops before the new law took effect in August 2014. Seven months later, after the change in age was made effective, field researchers returned to the same areas and repeated the procedure. 

The research found that compliance with ID checks had significantly declined, as had compliance with the minimum price law. Sales prices also declined significantly — by about 18 cents — the study found. Compliance with both laws was substantively lower in independent stores compared to chain stores.

"This study reveals a troubling pattern of non-compliance with ID check and minimum price laws among some retailers in New York City," said Diana Silver, the study's lead author and an associate professor of public health policy at NYU's College of Global Public Health. "Without serious attention to strengthening enforcement of its current laws, New York City will fail to realize the full potential of its efforts to reduce smoking." 

Researchers pointed to several potential reasons why effectiveness of the new law has been limited, including lack of awareness among retailers. The law did not go into effect until nine months after its enactment, so retailers may still have been unaware of the change.  

In addition, the researchers noted that enforcement measures for retailer tobacco laws involve five distinct city and state agencies, all with protocols and no additional resources allocated for inspection, prosecution and follow-up of those violating the new laws. States are federally required to ensure that non-compliance with ID check laws is no higher than 20 percent. 

"While we recognize that our sample cannot be generalized to the city as a whole, the levels of noncompliance with ID check laws is especially troubling," said UCLA's James Macinko, one of the study's authors. "In addition, sales below legal minimum prices present additional challenges for controlling access to cigarettes not just among youth, but among the entire city's population."

The Institute for Human Development and Social Change at NYU funded the study. 

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