TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y. — Opinions were mixed on whether Tompkins County should raise the tobacco purchase and sale age to 21 at a public hearing Tuesday.

Public comment was nearly evenly split between people in support of the proposed law, and against. But, whether people were for or against raising the age to 21, there was no disagreement that it would be good to reduce the number of children smoking.

Deborah Mendzef, who works for the Central New York Regional Center for Tobacco Health Systems at St. Joseph’s Hospital, cited data that 10 percent of youth in Tompkins County smoked in the past year and the average initiation rate to tobacco was 12 years old. She said the U.S. Surgeon General predicts that if usage rates continue as they are, 5.6 million children alive today under the age of 18 will die prematurely from smoking.

Mendzef asked legislators while they are considering how to vote on the law, to remember the “pain and suffering and debilitating impact of tobacco products on the human life, the years of battling the addiction, those suffering from a tobacco-related illness, those who have lost a life or a loved one from tobacco, and more important the manipulative strategy of the tobacco industry to get these individuals hooked at such a young age.”

She said raising the tobacco purchasing and sale age to 21 is one way to protect youth and their health for today and for future generations.

Some people shared their experiences with beginning to smoke at a young age. Anne Corbin, of Ulysses, said she supports the law and began smoking when she was 16 after people around her who were 18 and 19 gave her cigarettes. Later when she tried to quit, it was difficult. Despite being strong-willed, she said, it took her three years to finally quit.

Michael Frennier, who works in the vape industry, speaks in opposition of Tompkins County raising the tobacco purchase age to 21. Kelsey O’Connor/Ithaca Voice
Michael Frennier, who works in the vape industry, speaks in opposition of Tompkins County raising the tobacco purchase age to 21. Kelsey O’Connor/Ithaca Voice

Another person who also said he began smoking at 16 said he does not support raising the age. Holden Free, of Trumansburg, said using vape products has helped him get away from cigarettes and be healthier. Not being able to purchase vape products would affect him since he is 19.

Others who spoke said raising the age would drive business out of Tompkins County to neighboring counties where they could buy cigarettes.

Two people, with ties to selling vape products locally, voice opposition to the proposed local law.

Charles McAvoy, from Pennsylvania, who has invested downtown in vape shops including Headdies Pipe Shop and has a vape chain called Vape Dragons, said he was disheartened to hear about the proposed law. He said the vaping industry is not big tobacco and told legislators he was able to quit smoking cigarettes by vaping.

McAvoy said the law would impact local businesses like his.

“What about all the businesses in this area that depend on the college population that’s 18 to 20?” McAvoy said.

Several people said 18-year-olds who are able to vote, pay taxes, go to war, sign contracts, make adult decisions and face adult consequences, should also have the choice to buy tobacco products.

Dwight Mengel, of Ithaca, said he completely acknowledges the hazards of smoking. However, he said he remembers when he was 18, his friends were being sent to Vietnam.

“I wonder what we ask of our 18-year-olds. They graduate from high school. They can either go on, they can pursue other occupations, they can go on and fight in the military,” Mengel said. “I really want us to think about, what does this coming to an age of adulthood mean? And I think it means can you exercise choices — even really wrong choices, and even really bad choices — but to be able to exercise choice.”

Legislator Anna Kelles, D-Ithaca, has said she supports raising the purchasing age from a public health standpoint. In a previous interview with The Ithaca Voice, Kelles said three years does make a difference, and people are much more likely to be a smoker for life if they begin smoking while their brain is still developing.

Read more: Q&A with legislators: should Tompkins County approve increase in tobacco purchase age?

An Institute of Medicine report from 2015 projected that if the minimum legal age is raised to 21, the tobacco use initiation rate would decrease by about 15 percent for youth under 15, by 25 percent for youth ages 15 to 17 and by a little more than 15 percent for ages 18 to 20.

The study projects that if the minimum age were raised today, by the time teenagers were adults, there would be a 12 percent decrease in the prevalence of tobacco use among those adults. Though changing the purchasing age to 21 will primarily affect people between the ages of 18 and 21, the study still concludes that the largest reduction in initiation of tobacco use will occur between teenagers ages 15 to 17.

Though voting on the proposed local law was initially on the agenda, Kelles pulled the resolution from the agenda so legislators could have more time to mull comments and read materials provided by the public. The resolution is expected to resurface in two weeks at the next Tompkins County Legislature meeting.

Featured image by Kelsey O’Connor/Ithaca Voice

Kelsey O'Connor

Kelsey O'Connor is the managing editor for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact her at koconnor@ithacavoice.com and follow her on Twitter @bykelseyoconnor.