ITHACA, NY – Last month, after a tightly contested vote, neighboring Cortland County passed a law raising the minimum age to purchase tobacco products to 21. Now Tompkins County may follow suit.

The issue was discussed during a meeting of the Health and Human Services Committee of the Tompkins County Legislature on Monday. Ted Schiele, of Tobacco Free Tompkins, presented some research and statistics on smoking as it relates to age.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but the long-term goal of such a change is not to so much to restrict those age 18 to 21 from purchasing tobacco products. Rather, it is to provide a buffer between younger teens and their primary method of obtaining tobacco products: friends and family in the 18 to 21 age group.

This lowers “initiation,” and Schiele indicated that the research shows that people who start smoking at an earlier are more likely to develop a lifelong habit, while those who start smoking later in life are much less likely to become lifelong users.

He referred to a study released last year by the Institute of Medicine, which shows the potential impacts of raising the minimum age.

The study predicts that raising the minimum age to 21 would reduce the initiation rate of youth under age 15 by 15 percent, youth from ages 15 to 17 by 25 percent and young adults ages 18-20 by 15 percent.

The study model projects that if the minimum age were raised today, nationwide, by the time today’s teens became adults there would be an overall decrease of tobacco users of 12 percent — which equates to about 223,000 fewer premature deaths due to tobacco-related illnesses.

Schiele said that similar models were also used to determine the impacts of raising the age to 19 or 25, but 21 was the “sweet spot.”

Schiele also suggested that while increasing the age was a positive step, a comprehensive plan to limit tobacco use would be even more effective. This plan would include things like licensing for shops that wish to sell tobacco or smoking paraphernalia, to help improve accountability.

Aside from Cortland, several counties in New York and New York City — as well as the entire state of California — have also raised the legal age to purchase tobacco to 21.

Personal freedom vs. public health

The four legislators in attendance at the committee all seemed generally in favor of the idea.

Legislator Carol Chock was even more enthusiastic, saying that she felt that tobacco use had nothing positive to offer and the county should examine the idea of banning tobacco completely within its borders.

The other legislators, however, cautioned that the county should approach this issue slowly and carefully, including the potential impacts on businesses that sell tobacco or paraphernalia.

Legislator Anna Kelles, who is also a public health lecturer at Cornell, framed the issue as finding the balance between personal freedom and public health. People who contract tobacco-related illnesses do impact the taxpayer through Medicaid, but at the same time it was important to maintain individual rights.

“Where I have some resistance is that at some point I think adults should have the ability to dangerous things if they so desire, as long as they don’t affect other people,” said Legislator Will Burbank.

Schiele agreed that the county should approach the issue cautiously. The issue will be discussed further by the committee, and Schiele said he didn’t expect to see a resolution on it until next year.

Michael Smith

Michael Smith reports on politics and local news for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached via email at msmith@ithacavoice.com, by cell at (607) 229-0885, or via Google Voice at (518) 650-3639.