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Suffolk County, which was the first county in New York state to approve a smoking ban in restaurants two years ago, made history again yesterday when a new law took effect making it the first county in the state to raise the legal age for buying cigarettes and other tobacco products to 19 from 18, according to the New York Times.
The new law, which was passed in an 18-to-0 vote by county legislators last December and signed by Steve Levy, the county executive, on Jan. 31, took effect with little fanfare. The county's Department of Health Services had mistakenly notified about 2,200 storeowners that enforcement would begin on May 1, leading many stores to start limiting sales of the products two weeks before the actual start date. But officials nonetheless heralded yesterday as a milestone.
Brian X. Foley, a Democratic county legislator from Blue Point and the prime sponsor of the bill, talked of the "persuasive and powerful testimony" given at public hearings by high school students, explaining how their 18-year-old classmates would often buy cigarettes and bring them into schools for underclassmen.
"Nobody's under the illusion that this will eliminate the problem," Foley said. "But it should have some impact on the situation in the future."
Under the new law, any store caught selling tobacco to someone younger than 19 would be subject to a $300 fine for a first violation and up to $1,500 in fines for subsequent violations.
Several other counties in the metropolitan area are considering raising the legal age for buying tobacco products, including Nassau, Westchester and Rockland. Charles J. Fuschillo, a Republican state senator whose district straddles Nassau and Suffolk Counties, has also proposed state legislation that would raise the legal purchasing age throughout the state. Only three other states -- Alaska, Utah and Alabama -- have laws setting the minimum age for buying tobacco at 19.
Paul J. Tonna, a Republican Suffolk County legislator from West Hills and a co-sponsor of the new law, said he hoped the state would eventually enact similar legislation. "That's been generally the pattern: Suffolk County does it and then the state picks it up," he said.
Tonna was referring to the county's smoking ban in workplaces, including restaurants and bars, and its ban on handheld cellphone use while driving, which were both eventually enacted statewide. "We have a tradition of enacting progressive and proactive legislation," he added.
At a 7-Eleven in Farmingdale, just a few blocks west of the Nassau-Suffolk border, Moe Shahid said the store's employees expect sales may go up slightly since Nassau County still adheres to a minimum age of 18. "But Nassau County is thinking about it and it's probably just a matter of time before it becomes a state law," he said. "So it won't be different for long."
But James Calvin, president of the New York Association of Convenience Stores, a trade group in Albany that represents more than 1,500 stores, said his group opposed the Suffolk law and would fight against a state law.
"The reality is that this will not bring any meaningful progress in the ongoing effort to restrict young people's access to tobacco," he told the New York Times.