In what officials and medical experts called “historic” legislation, the City Council voted unanimously on Tuesday to prohibit the sale of tobacco to those under 21, including electronic cigarettes and other devices, which officials say will help protect the health of a generation of young people.
The law will take effect on March 1, and follow the Town of Hempstead’s move earlier this year to raise the legal age to buy tobacco products from 18 to 21 — which was already the case in Suffolk County, New York City and New Jersey. The age is currently 19, however, in Nassau County, and officials said that attempts to pass similar initiatives in Nassau have failed.
“As a father of a teenager, it really struck home for me,” City Council Vice President Anthony Eramo said at a news conference before the vote. “The Town of Hempstead and New York City have also raised the age to 21. As of right now, if you live in Lido Beach or Atlantic Beach or Island Park, you’re coming to Long Beach to buy cigarettes, and we don’t want to be that city where kids come to buy cigarettes.”
The council passed the legislation, known as Tobacco 21, after working closely with medical experts, local community organizations and the school district.
“Research has shown that young people get cigarettes from their peers between 18 and 21,” Councilwoman Chumi Diamond said. “We are standing up for kids in our community, and we are confident that this will help keep tobacco out of the hands of Long Beach Middle and High School students.”
Under the law, any business that sells tobacco and nicotine products would have to post signs stating that people under 21 were not allowed to purchase them. Store owners who did not adhere to the law would be subject to fines from $50 to $250 and/or seven days in jail for a first offense, subject to judicial discretion. A second offense could lead to fines ranging from $100 to $1,000, and up to 10 days in prison.
According to the Public Health and Tobacco Policy Center, 96 percent of smokers start using before the age of 21. The transition from experimentation to addiction usually occurs between 18 and 21, encouraging the tobacco industry to target young people. The center predicts that without intervention, 874,000 young people in New York will become smokers, and 280,000 will die prematurely.
According to the National Academy of Medicine, the brains of young people are vulnerable to the effects of nicotine in ways that adults are not.
Nearly 20 percent of high school seniors smoke cigarettes. Underage users primarily rely on “social sources” to obtain tobacco products, including friends and family members ages 18 to 20.
“This is about science; this isn’t about politics,” said Dr. David Fagan, a Long Beach resident and vice chairman of the department of pediatrics at Northwell Health. “This is about the susceptibility of an adolescent’s brain to nicotine. So, whatever we can do to delay introduction to smoking is going to result in a generation of teenagers who are less addicted to nicotine.”
The law applies to smokeless tobacco products such as e-cigarettes and similar devices that experts say pose health hazards, since the devices contain or produce chemicals other than nicotine that are known to be toxic.
“We know that policy is what moves the needle,” said Judi Vining, executive director of Long Beach AWARE, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preventing alcohol and substance abuse among young people. “Our schools are being hit hard — and not just Long Beach, but East Rockaway, Lynbrook, Oceanside, Rockville Centre — with vaping. That’s been a really big issue in what has been sold, in a sense, to kids, is that you’re not smoking, that it’s better. We have to make it more difficult for kids to get their hands on it.”
Last year, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murphy said that the use of e-cigarettes among high school students increased by 900 percent from 2011 to 2015. Specifically, among middle and high school students, use of e-cigarettes more than tripled since 2011.
“These products are now the most commonly used form of tobacco among youth in the United States, surpassing conventional tobacco products, including cigarettes, cigars, chewing tobacco and hookahs,” Vivek wrote in a report.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that such smokeless tobacco products are known to cause lung, larynx, esophageal, oral and pancreatic cancers, while the National Institute on Drug Abuse says that a dip of smokeless tobacco typically contains three to five times more nicotine than a cigarette.
Fagan — who approached the city about implementing the legislation with Dr. Shefali Shah, an ear nose and throat specialist in Long Beach, and Vining — said that the use of e-cigarettes and similar devices lead to tobacco addiction and use of tobacco products, like traditional cigarettes.
“Vaping, e-cigarettes, e-cigars, etc., they are a gateway to traditional cigarettes in youth,” Fagan said. “…The ones that started out using or trying e-cigarettes were seven times more likely to wind up as smokers. Some adults will talk about using e-cigarettes as a way to get off of traditional cigarettes, but that’s not the case among youth.”