Smokers younger than 21 in the nation's biggest city will soon be barred from buying cigarettes after the New York City Council voted overwhelming Wednesday to raise the tobacco-purchasing age to higher than all but a few other places in the United States.
City lawmakers approved the bill — which raises from 18 to 21 the purchasing age for cigarettes, certain tobacco products and even electronic-vapor smokes — and another that sets minimum prices for tobacco cigarettes and steps up law enforcement on illegal tobacco sales.
"This will literally save many, many lives," said an emotional City Councilman James Gennaro, the bill's sponsor, whose mother and father died from tobacco-related illnesses. "I've lived with it, I've seen it...but I feel good today."
Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is a strong supporter of the tough smoking restrictions, has 30 days to sign the bills into law. The minimum age bill will take effect 180 days after enactment.
"We know that tobacco dependence can begin very soon after a young person first tries smoking so it's critical that we stop young people from smoking before they ever start," Bloomberg said in a statement.
With Wednesday's vote, New York is by far the biggest city to bar cigarette sales to 19- and 20-year-olds. Similar legislation is expected to come to a vote in Hawaii this December.
Officials previously shelved a plan Bloomberg unveiled with fanfare earlier this year: forcing stores to keep cigarettes out of public view until a customer asks for them.
The city's current age limit is 18, a federal minimum that's standard in many places. Some states and communities have raised the age to 19. At least two towns, both in Massachusetts, have agreed to raise it to 21.
Advocates say higher age limits help prevent, or at least delay, young people from taking up a habit that remains the leading cause of preventable deaths nationwide. And supporters point to drinking-age laws as a precedent for setting the bar at 21.
Cigarette manufacturers have suggested young adult smokers may just turn to black-market merchants. And some smokers say it's unfair and patronizing to tell people considered mature enough to vote and serve in the military that they're not old enough to decide whether to smoke.
The tobacco-buying age is 21 in Needham, Mass., and is poised to rise to 21 in January in nearby Canton, Mass. The state of New Jersey is considering a similar proposal, and the idea has been floated in other places, including the Texas Legislature.
E-cigarette makers say their products are healthier than tobacco, and a trade association leader bristled at the city's proposal to prevent people under 21 from buying them.
"Is 21 the right number? People can join the Army at 18," said Ray Story, founder of the Atlanta-based Tobacco Vapor Electronic Cigarette Association.