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Another Voice: Raising age for tobacco purchases will be a lifesaver

By Andrew Hyland

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo rang in 2019 with a comprehensive set of tobacco policies that will improve the health of all New Yorkers. The most impactful policy proposes raising the sales age from 18 to 21 for all tobacco products, including electronic cigarettes.

As head of the tobacco control programs at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center, director of the New York State Quitline, and a researcher who has spent 25 years working to reduce the terrible burdens of tobacco both here in New York and across the globe, I’m encouraged that lawmakers in the New York State Assembly passed the Tobacco 21 bill last week. If passed by the State Senate and signed by the governor, the bill would become law.

So, what would this law mean for the health and well-being of New Yorkers – both now and for generations to come? Let’s look at the facts.

This year, more than 10,000 New York State kids will try smoking their first cigarette. Nearly 874,000 New York youth alive today will become daily cigarette smokers, and an estimated 280,000 of them will die from a tobacco-related illness.

Roughly one-third of all cancer deaths in the state are caused by smoking. Tobacco use also takes its toll financially, costing New Yorkers $10.39 billion annually from tobacco-related illnesses.

Studies show that raising the sales age to 21 will reduce the number of kids who start smoking cigarettes by about 15 percent each and every year. This means fewer and fewer new cigarette smokers starting over time, a decrease that translates into thousands of cases of lung cancer, heart disease and emphysema being prevented.

About 95 percent of adult cigarette smokers start before age 21 and younger teens often get tobacco products and e-cigarettes from their friends and siblings; so raising the sales age will help keep tobacco both out of our schools, and out of the hands of our younger residents.

Raising the minimum legal age to 21 has broad public support and is rapidly gaining momentum. In addition to the states of California, Virginia, New Jersey and Massachusetts, over 430 municipalities across seven states, as well as 23 counties (including Cattaraugus and Chautauqua counties, and a recent proposal by Erie County) in New York State and all of New York City, have raised the age that you can buy tobacco products and e-cigarettes to 21. It’s time for New York State to join them.

Raising the tobacco sales age to 21 will save thousands of lives, reduce health care costs, and be a major step forward in improving the health of all New Yorkers.

Andrew Hyland, Ph.D., is chairman of the Department of Health Behavior at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center.

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