The New York City Council passed a first-of-its-kind bill Wednesday that would raise minimum age to buy tobacco from 18 to 21.
"This, I believe, is the next big thing for the city, and hopefully for the state and for the country," the proposal's sponsor, City Councilman James Gennaro, said before Wednesday's vote.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg is expected to sign the measure. Officials previously shelved a plan Bloomberg unveiled with fanfare earlier this year: forcing stores to keep cigarettes out of public view until a customer asks for them.
The city's current age limit is 18, a federal minimum that's standard in many places. Some states and communities have raised the age to 19. At least two towns, in Massachusetts, have agreed to raise it to 21.
Advocates say higher age limits help prevent, or at least delay, young people from taking up a habit that remains the leading cause of preventable deaths nationwide. And supporters point to drinking-age laws as a precedent for setting the bar at 21.
Cigarette manufacturers have suggested young adult smokers may just turn to black-market merchants. And some smokers say it's unfair and patronizing to tell people considered mature enough to vote and serve in the military that they're not old enough to decide whether to smoke.
"In order to control smoking by those younger than 18, this older age group is rewarded for their vote by stripping them of the very adulthood that allowed them to vote for these politicians in the first place," says NYC CLASH, a smokers-rights group that has sued the city over other smoking restrictions.
The tobacco-buying age is 21 in Needham, Mass., and is poised to rise to 21 in January in nearby Canton, Mass. The state of New Jersey is considering a similar proposal, and the idea has been floated in other places, including the Texas Legislature.
During Bloomberg's nearly 12 years in office, New York City has helped impose among the highest cigarette taxes in the country, barred smoking in restaurants, bars, parks and beaches and launched sometimes graphic advertising campaigns about the effects of smoking.
The mayor proposed in March to require shops to keep tobacco products in cabinets, drawers, under the counter, behind a curtain or in other concealed spots until a customer asked for them. He said the displays "invite young people to experiment with tobacco."
The idea was modeled on laws in Iceland, Canada, England and Ireland. But a similar measure had been rescinded in suburban Haverstraw, N.Y., after cigarette manufacturers sued. They said it violated their companies' free speech rights to communicate with consumers about their products' availability and prices.
Cigarette makers and sellers also campaigned against the New York City proposal, saying it overreached and would harm law-abiding businesses while helping illicit sellers.
The city Health Department said in a statement that the measure was taken off the table because "with the arrival of e-cigarettes, more time is needed to determine how best to address this problem."
E-cigarette makers say their products are healthier than tobacco, and a trade association leader bristled at the city's proposal to prevent people under 21 from buying them.
"Is 21 the right number? People can join the Army at 18," said Ray Story, founder of the Atlanta-based Tobacco Vapor Electronic Cigarette Association.