Ulster Officials Look to Raise Tobacco Age

Officials in Ulster County hope to enforce "Tobacco 21" in an effort to help young adults make smart choices.

Ulster County representatives believe that raising the legal age to purchase tobacco products will prevent minors from developing a smoking addiction at a young age.

In his 2018 State of the County address, Ulster County Executive Mike Hein shared his plans to change the legal purchase age to 21. The “Tobacco 21” policy’s mission is to prevent kids from developing an addiction by legally making them wait until they’re mature enough to make their own decision.   

Ella Reinhard, director of Tobacco Free Action Communities of Ulster (TFAC), worked alongside Ulster officials to push the policy. 

“The tobacco industry really targets the youth,” Reinhard said. “We want to stop someone from picking up that first cigarette and getting a lifelong addiction.” 

Proposed Local Law Number One of 2017 in Ulster County, a similar law concerning underaged tobacco use, defines tobacco products as a substance containing the tobacco leaf or electronic cigarettes.

In Ulster County, 21 percent of the population are smokers, noticeably higher than the statewide average of 14 percent, according to Reinhard. Approximately 96 percent of adult smokers began smoking before they were 21-years-old, while the average age to begin smoking is 13-years-old. 

A 2015 study conducted by the Institute of Medicine predicted that changing the national smoking age to 21 would result in an overall decrease of American smokers by 12 percent.         

Reinhard argued that because smoking is largely a social activity and if this proposal were implemented, fewer minors would have friends able to purchase tobacco products. A 16-year old is more likely to have access to an 18-year old friend than one who is 21. 

However, politicians like Ulster County Legislature Chairman Ken Ronk are skeptical of the law’s effectiveness. According to The Daily Freeman, Ronk believes research proving such a restriction would be effective is necessary to implement the law.     

Some opponents fear the potential  economic consequences for the county if the law is passed. However, Ulster County Deputy Executive Ken Crannell predicts the impact will be minimal. Smokers between the ages of 18 and 20 consume a mere 2.12 percent of all cigarettes consumed by adults who smoke cigarettes, according to a TFAC press release. 

TFAC’s release claimed the law could also save billions in taxpayer dollars by decreasing the state funding of tobacco-related health issues. New Yorkers spend $10.4 billion annually for these medical costs, merely $3.3 billion of which is covered by Medicare.

Smoking carries a number of lethal health concerns including various forms of cancer like lung cancer, the leading cancer killer in New York according to a TFAC release. 107,530 New Yorkers will be diagnosed with lung cancer this year with 35,960 losing their battle.

Orange and Sullivan County have already adopted the Tobacco 21 policy, along with 14 other counties across the state. The county has the authority to implement the age restriction under public health laws. The proposal would be filed with the county legislature, a public hearing would be heard and legislators would make the final decision. 

Ulster County Dr. Kathy Knowland, who is one of the initiative’s sponsors, is hopeful the law that will pass this session. 

“I am very hopeful,” Knowland said. “Surveys suggest that 70 percent of people in Ulster County support the law.”