CITY HALL — Eighteen-year-old New Yorkers could soon be able to drive, vote and serve in the military — but be forbidden from lighting up.
City Council Speaker Christine Quinn announced Monday morning she and other Council members will introduce legislation next month to raise the minimum legal age for purchasing all tobacco products from 18 to 21.
Quinn said the law, which would make New York the first major city in the country to set a smoking age above age 19, would help prevent youth from becoming lifelong smokers who weigh heavily on public health budgets when they fall ill from smoking-related diseases as adults.
"The more difficult is it for high schoolers to gain access to tobacco products, the less likely they are to start smoking [and] the more likely they are to live longer," Quinn said.
In addition to making it harder for youth to buy tobacco for their own use, the bill is intended to prevent youth ages 18 to 20 from buying smokes for their younger friends, city Health Commissioner Thomas Farley said, calling tobacco "the world's most dangerous drug."
City Councilman James Gennaro, who represents a swath of Queens that includes Flushing, said the legislation held personal meaning for him. His mother began smoking at age 18 in 1946.
"We lost her to lung cancer and my daughter barely got to know her," Gennaro said with tears in his eyes. "To me it's not about all kinds of statistics and facts … This is about my mom and everyone else's mom and sisters and daughters."
The city Department of Consumer Affairs is responsible for ticketing retailers caught selling tobacco products to people under age 18 and would be responsible for enforcing a new law, Quinn said. The amount of new fines for retailers that illegally sell tobacco to youth will be ironed out in City Council.
Asked if the city could afford the loss of tax revenue that raising the smoking age would cause, Quinn said protecting New Yorkers' health was a higher priority.
"They're taxes we want to lose because losing those taxes means fewer young people are smoking," she said. "And in the long run it would cost our society much more to have to treat and care for those individuals" who later suffer from smoking-related illnesses.
Officials did not immediately have an estimate on how much smoking costs the city or how much tax revenue cigarette taxes generate.
About 80 percent of New Yorkers who smoke took up the habit before they turned 21 years old, a city Health Department analysis of data from 2004 to 2007 shows.
The bill will be introduced by the City Council's health committee on May 2, Quinn said.
"We're going to move this as quickly as we can through the legislative process," she said.