QUEENS — Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed legislation Monday that would make New York the first city in the nation to bar retailers from displaying cigarettes in stores.
Under the plan, which will be introduced in the city council later this week, retailers would have to store cigarettes below counters, in drawers, cabinets, behind curtains, or other out-of-sight places unless they're actively being sold to an adult buyer.
A second bill would crack down on illegal cigarettes by prohibiting coupons and discounts on cigarettes and little cigars, or cigarillos, and establish a minimum price of $10.50 a pack. The bill would also boost penalties for retailers caught evading the law.
The proposals are aimed at reducing teen smoking rates, which have remained flat at roughly 8.5 percent since 2007, officials said.
“Such displays suggest that smoking is a normal activity and they invite young people to experiment with tobacco," Bloomberg told reporters at a press conference at Queens Hospital Center.
“We know that out of sight doesn’t always mean out of mind, but in many cases it can. And we think this measure will help reduce impulse purchases," he said.
Health Commissioner Thomas Farley said that teens were especially susceptible to price increases and advertising for tobacco, which he described as "the world’s most dangerous drug" — killing more people in the country per year than heroin, crack, cocaine, crystal meth, and all other illegal drugs combined.
“The more those kids see those cigarettes the more they view smoking as normal and acceptable, the more likely they are to start smoking," he said, adding that city lawyers were confident the bills would stand up to any legal challenge from the tobacco industry.
The display ban would not impact advertising in stores, and specialty stores that stock more than 50 percent tobacco products would be exempt. However, children under 18 would be barred from entering tobacco stores unless accompanied by an adult, officials said.
Fines would range from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, and stores could be shuttered for repeat violations, a Health Department spokeswoman said.
Similar bans on cigarette display are already in effect in countries including Canada, Australia and England.
Reaction to the plan was generally positive, even among some long-time smokers, who said they'd first tried cigarettes as teens.
"They're doing the right thing" said Nile Taylor, 29, who lives in Queens and blamed colorful tobacco displays, with their bright colors and advertised flavors, for getting him hooked.
"That temps kids to want to smoke," said Taylor, who said he'd been struggling to quit for years. "It got me to smoke, to be honest."
Non-smoker John Right, 26, who lives in the Lower East Side, agreed the idea was a positive step.
"I guess 'Out of sight, out of mind,'" he said, echoing Bloomberg's words. "Cigarettes are becoming not cool more and more. I think it's a good idea."
But Ash Rahi, a partner at the bodega Optimo Cigars across from City Hall, was skeptical the plan would dissuade teens from smoking and worried about the impact on the store's bottom line.
While Rahi said the store, which sells both cigarettes and cigars, relies on tobacco products for less than 15 percent of sales, he said that people buying smokes are also good customers, typically throwing in a drink or a bag of chips.
"It's kind of scary. He was just trying to ban those big drinks," said Rahi, 30. "You can't really impose these kind of things. That's freedom of choice."
Audrey Silk, the founder of Citizens Lobbying Against Smoker Harassment, a smokers' rights group, also questioned the legality of the plan and slammed it as yet another attempt by the Bloomberg administration to vilify smokers.
"I'm so sick of hearing 'It's not the norm.' What's not the norm is the attack on the free will of the people," she said. “Is the city gong to hide smokers because that’s a message that it’s OK to smoke?”
The move is the latest in Bloomberg's public health crusade, which has included barring smoking in bars, restaurants and city parks — sometimes earning him the label of "Nanny Bloomberg."
But Bloomberg said a long-running cartoon depicting him in a Marry Poppins dress were actually a compliment.
"I take that as a great badge of honor," he said. "That's one of the most wonderful cartoons I've ever seen."
His most recent plan to bar the sale of large, sugary sodas was thwarted last week by a judge who argued the city's Board of Health had over-stepped its bounds.