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Health advocates, businesses divided on raising age to buy tobacco, e-cigarettes

The way public health experts see it, only good things will come of the state's movement toward raising the legal age to buy tobacco and electronic cigarettes to 21, largely because it will place one more impediment in the way of youths who might be tempted to take up a dangerous habit.

Andrew Osborne doesn't see it that way. Osborne, who owns the Vapor Trail Shop on South Park Avenue in South Buffalo, argues that some people use e-cigarettes and vaping products to quit smoking. So raising the age denies more people the chance to start quitting sooner, he said.

"This law certainly sends the messages to millions of smokers that vaping and smoking are the same thing," said Osborne, who is also vice president of the New York State Vapor Association. "And a message like that, in my opinion, is a public health catastrophe."

The state Assembly on Wednesday overwhelmingly approved a bill to raise the age to purchase tobacco and e-cigarette products from 18 to 21. The state Senate is expected to approve the proposal in the coming weeks, which would move the measure to the desk of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. He has said he supports the higher age. Once he signs the bill, the law would take effect 120 days later.

It also would be another move away from the idea that the age of 18 is when adulthood begins and has re-ignited a debate that dates back generations about why 18 is old enough to vote, drive a car and join the military, but too young to drink alcohol or purchase cigarettes.

But that question was obscured a day after the Assembly vote, when health officials and organizations praised state lawmakers for moving to protect young people from a hazardous habit.

"We know youth brains are very susceptible to the addictive properties of nicotine, because youth brains are still developing until their mid-20s," Erie County Health Commissioner Gale Burstein said.

Despite arguments by Osborne and others about the potential good that can come from access to e-cigarettes, Burstein said the Food and Drug Administration does not recognize them as smoking cessation products. She also said she knows of no data that supports the belief that e-cigarettes help people quit smoking. Some e-cigarettes have even higher concentrations of nicotine than traditional cigarettes, she said.

Since many underage smokers get their tobacco and e-cigarette products from older high school or young college students, she said, raising the legal smoking age to 21 will make it harder for older teens to buy these products and give them to their friends.

Burstein also said the law creates more age consistency among harmful-but-legal products, such as alcohol and marijuana, which is under consideration by state lawmakers to be legalized for those 21 and older.

Some critics have pointed out that 18-year-olds serve in the military and vote, but would not be allowed to purchase tobacco and e-cigarettes until they turn 21. One assemblyman voted against the bill because it did not carve out exceptions for service members serving on military bases in New York.

In addition to health groups, like the American Lung Association, the American Heart Association and Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center, there's been support from some in the industry, including the parent company of Philip Morris USA.

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The makers of Juul, the popular e-cigarette brand, also say they support the measure becoming law.

"We cannot fulfill our mission to provide the world’s one billion adult smokers with a true alternative to combustible cigarettes – the number one cause of preventable death in this country – if youth-use continues unabated," Juul Labs CEO Kevin Burns said in a written statement.

Erie County Legislator Barbara Miller-Williams, D-Buffalo, sponsored a local county law to raise the age to 21 for all tobacco and e-cigarette products last month. But that law would be superseded by the state law.

Legislator John Bruso, who held a forum at the Lancaster Opera House this week on the vaping trend among youth, said Thursday he expects the state law will help prevent older high school kids from selling e-cigarette products to kids in middle school.

"I believe it's a good first step," he said. "I don't think that's going to curb the adolescent vaping issue 100 percent."

The state Association of County Health Officials praised the Assembly's passage of the bill.

"Tobacco use is one of the most common sources of preventable illness and premature death. Nearly all of today’s adult smokers began smoking before the age of 21, and we know from research that changing from an experimental smoker to a regular smoker typically occurs around age 20," association president Paul Pettit, who is also the public health director in Genesee and Orleans counties, said in a written statement.

"That’s why this law is so critically important," Pettit added.

Osborne, owner of the South Buffalo vape shop, said that while the state association is opposed to the higher age legislation, he knows many counties have already adopted similar legislation. Since many of the people who come into his store to buy vaping products are in their 40s, he doesn't expect the law to harm his business much.

He's more alarmed, he said, at state efforts to ban e-cigarette flavors, which he said would put most vape stores out of business.

New York poised to raise purchase age for tobacco products, e-cigarettes to 21

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