The Other Side of ‘Tobacco 21’

More discussion in Carmel on proposal to raise age

By Holly Crocco

Putnam County lawmakers who are considering whether to raise the legal age to purchase tobacco products from 18 to 21 heard on July 10 from the president of an industry group that represents convenience-store owners.

“I would encourage you not to look at Tobacco 21 as exclusively a public health issue,” said Jim Calvin of the New York Association of Convenience Stores at the meeting of the Legislature’s health committee in Carmel. “It is also a small business issue. There are retailers who are licensed to sell legal tobacco products to adult customers across Putnam County who would be impacted.”

According to Calvin, nearly 100 retailers in Putnam County are licensed by the state to sell tobacco. Statewide, 95 percent comply with the law that forbids selling the products to anyone younger than 18, and in Putnam County, compliance is at 97 percent, he said.

“You can be proud of the job your health department does and proud of the job your licensed retailers do in fulfilling their commitment to preventing youth access to tobacco products,” said Calvin.

He said that most underage smokers get tobacco from acquaintances not retailers. In addition, Calvin pointed out that while Westchester County has raised the age to 21, the Dutchess County Legislature voted not to, so anyone age 18 to 21 can go there to buy cigarettes.

“We opposed a higher tobacco purchase age because we don’t think it will work,” he said. “If it won’t work, why force retailers – who are upholding the purchase age and doing their job in preventing underage access to tobacco – to forfeit legitimate sales of cigarettes when younger teens are still going to be able, regrettably and unfortunately, be able to access tobacco projects?”

Legislator Barbara Scuccimarra (R-Philipstown), who chairs the health committee and who has been a vocal proponent of raising the age, said she is far less concerned with sales that retailers would lose if the legislation were passed (she cited a figure of 2 percent) and more concerned about preventing young people from smoking.

“I don’t think anyone is saying that Tobacco 21 will completely eliminate smoking and tobacco use,” she said. “But I do think it’s going to keep it away from the younger groups.”

Calvin disputed the 2 percent figure, and said that convenience stores often rely on tobacco products to draw customers.

“For most convenient stores, tobacco is a destination product category for adult customers, meaning it gets adult customers inside the store with the expectation and the hope that those cigarette customers will buy other stuff while they’re inside the store,” he said. “And so the retailer is depending not only on the sale of the tobacco, but the ancillary sales.”

In addition, Calvin said the Tax Foundation reports that New York leads the nation in cigarette smuggling, at 57 percent. “So, from our perspective, the barrier that you’re trying to place between the tobacco and the younger kids is not a brick wall, it’s Swiss cheese,” he said.

Calvin argued that even if the age to purchase tobacco is raised to 21, it still will be legal for young people to possess and smoke tobacco.

Legislator Bill Gouldman (R-Putnam Valley) expressed concern over who would be responsible for enforcing the law, such as police or the health department, and whether there is enough manpower to do so.

“So we’re going to have a smoking police in Putnam County?” he asked.

He pointed out that in his district, which encompasses the Mahopac and Putnam Valley school districts, the closest convenience stores to the high schools are in Westchester County, anyway.

Legislator Carl Albano (R-Carmel) said he supports the legislation.

“If it improves young people not smoking – if it has any affect, if it’s a Swiss cheese affect, even if it’s a 10 percent affect – it’s an affect in the right direction,” he said. “I feel for the stores but that’s probably the lowest concern I have, is the profitability part of it.”

Putnam County’s interim health commissioner, Dr. Michael Nesheiwat, noted that years ago, the county Board of Health banned smoking in restaurants, and local restaurants continued to thrive.

“I really believe that it’s going to work out to the advantage of the people of Putnam County,” he said of the proposed legislation.

Legislator Joseph Castellano (R-Brewster) said he is “on the fence” about the idea.

“It’s a federal/state issue and I wish they would handle it and not dump it on the counties,” he said. “We’re hurting the convenience stores, and the black market will just go up.”

Legislator Ginny Nacerino (R-Patterson) echoed that sentiment, adding that young people need to be taught to make good decisions on their own, such as the decision not to smoke. “I’m not one for government banning everything,” she said. “We’re not really giving them the advantage they need to rise to adulthood.”

The Tobacco 21 proposal has not yet been sent by the committee to the full Legislature for consideration, and Scuccimarra said she would like to add a clause about the licensing of vape shops. According to the lawmaker, if a store sells only vaping chemicals but not tobacco, it doesn’t have to be licensed through the state.

Scuccimarra will appear with Odell at a news conference on Wednesday, July 25, at the Historic Courthouse in Carmel to speak about the proposed legislation, according to a statement released by the county. With her will be members of the One Army in the War on Addiction Task Force, which she chairs.

The statement released to the media include comments of support for the legislation from Philip Benante, the newly hired superintendent of the Haldane Central School District, and Frances Wills, superintendent of the Putnam Valley Central School District.