ITHACA, N.Y. – A new proposed age restriction increase may make legal tobacco purchase for 18-year-olds a thing of the past in Tompkins County. Conflicting opinions in the local legislature have led to a standstill on the issue, and now the decision to raise the age restriction to 21 remains with the Health & Human Services Department.

An initiative to raise the legal tobacco purchase age to 21 began in Tompkins County last summer after the law had been successfully implemented in Albany County. Ted Schiele, the coordinator of Tobacco Free Tompkins, said he first became aware of the proposal after the Chair of Tompkins County legislature, Mike Lane, initially contacted him with the idea.

“(Lane) saw that Albany County had done it, and he has a long history and interest in tobacco control issues,” explained Schiele. “You have to have a sense of public health and what the goals are – one of the ways we protect public health is to make changes which will affect individual health and the overall health of the community.”

As the coordinator of Tobacco Free Tompkins, a state-funded program, Schiele explained that he already dedicates much of his time to operating under goals and objectives for tobacco control programs which aim to protect public health, support smokers who want to quit and keep the air smoke free. As a smoker for 20 years, Schiele explained that he finally quit because of the clean indoor air act.

“I started smoking as a social thing,” he said. “Our goal at Tobacco Free Tompkins is to do everything possible to help youth make the healthier choice.”

While the bill still sits in the Health & Human Services Dept., there is a possibility that it may be passed in Tompkins County, following the lead of other counties in the area. We spoke to two local legislators, Mike Sigler and Anna Kelles – on opposing sides of the issue – to see where they stand.

Ithaca Voice: Explain the significant developmental differences between the use of tobacco products at age 18 versus. age 21. Do the three years have potentially noticeable effect in smoking habits?

MS: I would imagine that a person with three or more years of maturing would make better choices. Clearly, someone at 21 would make better choices on whether or not to take on tens of thousands of dollars of debt to finance college, on who to marry and spend the rest of their lives with, whether or not to risk their life in a war, whether or not to sign a contract, whether or not to have sex, whether or not to donate an organ.  They would presumably be better decision makers when driving a 2,000-pound car, fly an airplane, work heavy machinery, drive a big rig.  Should 18-year-old women not be able to decide whether or not to have an abortion?

AK: According to the research the three years actually does make a significant difference. Tobacco is one of the most highly addictive substances currently used by humans. According to the research, it is significantly more likely that an individual will be a smoker for life if they begin smoking during the time period when the brain is still developing. The brain development even during these final teenage years is significant enough to impact the extent of the tobacco addiction.

Underage kids already find ways around the laws which limit certain substances to age – what are your thoughts on this law deterring youth from smoking?

MS: People will always find out ways around laws, not just kids.  I believe the best way to fight kids from starting smoking is to fight the normalization of smoking.  When I was a kid, a lot of people smoked, in restaurants, public spaces, on television;  it was everywhere.  Most importantly, people I respected smoked.  My daughter now looks at smoking as an unusual thing.  No one important to her smokes to her knowledge. It’s rare for her to see smoking.

AK:  Yes that’s true, however, one of the most common ways that underage individuals get a product is from friends or someone they know who is of age or closer enough to look of age without getting carded. By moving the purchase age to 21, we are getting that transaction further away from high school and therefore more likely to leave those aged 15, 16, 17 without a ready source. 

18-year-olds have the right to vote, the ability to join the military, etc… what is your argument defending the right for an 18-year-old to smoke? Alternately, what is your argument that this exceeds the rights of an adult teen?

MS: We can argue if 18 should be the age of majority or if it should be 21.  It was 18 until, I believe, World War II.  Since we as a nation have decided that 18 is the age of majority, that means something. I look at the drinking age. Has it lowered the death rate on roads?  I think that’s arguable since cars are simply much safer than they used to be and much of that problem was because the ages were different in different states.  What we have now is 18-year-olds, binge drinking, pre-gaming themselves into oblivion, or turning to pills and weed because they’re easier to get and hide.

AK: 18-year-olds have been granted the responsibility to vote, and are accepted into the military. There is a draft that allows the government to conscript 18-year-olds into the military. Both of these can have both short term and long term consequences. Both come with extensive training and supervision by older individuals who have already developed experience and expertise. Tobacco is an addictive drug that comes with no training. The brain is not fully developed until age 25, and if nicotine is introduced into the brain before it is fully developed, the brain develops around the need for nicotine. It is biology and biochemistry. Decision-making abilities are not fully functional at age 18.

Two other age-related “rights”: minimum age for purchase, consumption, or possession of alcohol is 21; minimum age to rent a car is 25. With the latter, the insurance companies know what the age of responsibility is.

How would this law be a better or worse incentive to deter tobacco use in comparison to other initiatives such as raised tax on tobacco, anti-smoking campaigns, or education on the effects of tobacco?

MS: I think the best way to combat smoking is fighting its normalization. I’m not talking about ostracizing people. The removal of advertising I believe have been effective. As more people stop smoking in one generation, the next generation should see a decrease in smoking. I’m not sure you’ll ever be able to wipe out smoking. Is there a percentage level where we simply won’t see a reduction?

AK: Taxes are one of the best ways of lowering cigarette use. NYS has the highest cigarette tax in the nation, and that contributes to NYS having one of the lowest smoking rates in the nation. The tobacco industry spends billions of dollars a year to defeat the tax through couponing and other pricing deals. Anti-smoking campaigns and education have done a lot to lower the smoking rate. However, anti-smoking campaigns are not sufficiently funded to counter the billions of dollars that the tobacco industry puts into marketing their products. Raising the minimum purchase age is one more tool in the kit.

It is well-known that tobacco use is directly connected to various health issues. Does changing the law affect what people already know, believe and decide to take part in or not?

MS: I think the end goal is to prevent young people from ever starting smoking.  While that’s a noble cause, it doesn’t make much sense to me to limit the rights of adults when we aren’t even considering limiting their rights in other aspects that could have similar detrimental results in their lives like overwhelming student debt.

AK: For many years, tobacco use has been an accepted social norm, an accepted right of passage to adulthood (as defined by graduating from high school and moving out of the family home and making your own home). Raising the age to 21 will do a lot to help undo that social norm, so tobacco use is no longer expected social behavior, no longer part of leaving childhood and becoming an adult. Many social norms are very community specific; our community is a big supporter of public transportation for example, and new efforts are being made by the government and other entities to make walkability a community norm, and population density. Recycling is a community norm that was encouraged by government policy. These norms are part of encouraging healthy lifestyles and sustainability. Not using tobacco products fits right in with those community norms.

Part of that social norm is also adult acceptance of youth smoking, and changing the norm can help to discourage parental acceptance of their children taking up tobacco use. And parental opinion and acceptance do have a big impact on children’s behaviors.

Featured photo courtesy of Flickr.

Alyvia Covert

Alyvia is a Crime Reporter with The Ithaca Voice. She graduated from Ithaca College with a degree in Journalism and Photography.