Onondaga County Lawmakers Bump Up Legal Age to Buy Tobacco Products to 21

Dec 5, 2017

Credit tobacco21.org

Starting January first, Onondaga County residents who want to buy tobacco products must be 21 years old.  Lawmakers by a vote of 11 to 5 Tuesday amended a local law that raises the age from 19, which was set in 2009.    Executive Director of the Regional Chapter of the American Heart Association Franklin Fry says the measure had the support of residents, school districts, hospitals, and dozens of companies.

"We've seen it work elsewhere.  We know from our science that if someone can get to 21 without smoking, there's only a two percent chance they ever will."

Others shared personal stories of how tobacco use has impacted their lives.  Legislator Danny Liedka recalled 29 years ago to the day, he had gone to bed after watching football with his mother.

"I got that call for help from her in the other room.  She couldn't breathe.  This was commonplace.  We called the ambulance about once every six months.  This was the last time we had to call the ambulance.  My mother  died in my arms from smoking," Liedka said, his voice cracking.  "She started at 15. She died at 56 years old.  Ten years later, my father, a combat veteran,  died from smoking at age 65."

Liedka says his siblings started smoking before age 21, and have suffered major strokes as a result.  Laura Hamilton is a family physician who trained and served in a military hospital.

Franklin Fry with the American Heart Association holds a stack of petitions from county residents favoring tobacco 21 legislation.
Credit Scott Willis / WAER News

"One of my patients remarked after having a discussion with him about likely losing his leg below the knee to peripheral vascular disease said, 'I made it through a war without losing any of my limbs.  I can't believe I'm going to lose my leg now.'   The one thing that every patient that I had said to be regarding their tobacco use was, 'If I had known then what I know now, I never would have started smoking.'"

Tobacco 21 as it’s known does not include a military exemption like the previous version.  It DOES include electronic cigarettes.  Chris Owens is Director of the CNY regional center for tobacco health systems at St. Joseph’s hospital. 

"E-cigarette use among youth is a major public health concern.  Studies confirm that e-cigarette use among youth is directly associated with with both intention to smoke cigarettes and subsequent cigarette smoking."

David Barry disagrees.  He's regional director of the New York State Vapor Association, the only one to publicly speak against the measure at Tuesday's meeting. 

"There's no evidence to suggest that vaping leads to smoking; it's rather the opposite.   Eighteen to 21 year-olds are using vaping products for the same reason as adults older than they are, which is to quit smoking."

Dissenting lawmakers didn’t question the dangers of smoking, and expressed their disgust with the habit.  But they say Tobacco 21 encroaches on personal freedoms, and fear it opens the door to similar legislation.  A public hearing and the county executive’s signature are still needed before the measure becomes law.