New York City has enjoyed tremendous success in reducing youth smoking rates. Youth smoking rates in our city declined from 17.6 percent in 2001 to 8.5 percent in 2007. But our progress has stalled since then.
This is not surprising, since tobacco companies spend $8.37 billion each year in the U.S. on marketing, including $196 million in New York alone. The more kids see tobacco marketing and product displays, the more likely they are to smoke. More work needs to be done to bring down youth smoking rates, and prevent kids from lighting up.
New York City has led the nation and the world in fighting tobacco use, especially among children. For the New York City Coalition for a Smoke-Free City, even one new smoker is one too many — especially when it’s a young person. We know that nearly 90 percent of new smokers are under the age of 18.
To address this public health crisis, the mayor and City Council have introduced three new pieces of legislation that will reduce youth access and addiction to deadly tobacco products and prevent today’s youth from becoming the next generation of addicted smokers. These groundbreaking bills would help more New Yorkers live longer, healthier lives, and solidify New York City’s legacy as an innovative public health leader.
The first proposed bill would make our city the first in the nation to restrict the display of tobacco products in stores where youth frequently shop.
Many retailers have “power walls:” massive displays of tobacco products right behind the counter. Whenever youth pay at the register, the power wall is right in full view. These displays prompt impulse buys and are designed to attract youth and normalize both the availability and purchase of tobacco products — the leading cause of preventable death in the U.S.
Research shows that higher prices deter youth smoking. New York City has the highest cigarette tax in the nation to protect our youth. The second proposed bill would prevent the use of coupons and other discounts and create a price floor for a pack of cigarettes. It would also level the playing field for retailers, who play by the rules and don’t sell loose or unstamped tobacco products, by increasing the penalties for those who do.
The third proposed bill would raise the minimum age to purchase tobacco products to 21. Studies show that 90 percent of people purchasing cigarettes for minors are 18, 19, or 20 years old. Under the new minimum age of 21, New York City high school students could no longer purchase cigarettes, and the number of public high school students under the age of 18 who smoke would decline. We can stop our young people from becoming addicted: young experimental smokers typically become regular smokers around age 20.
New Yorkers are committed to protecting the health of our children. Public opinion polls show that 59 percent of New Yorkers support prohibiting tobacco displays in stores, and 67 percent support raising the minimum age to purchase tobacco products to 21.
Tobacco use is still the number one cause of preventable death, killing hundreds of thousands of people in the U.S. annually, including thousands of lives lost here in New York. Ten years ago, New York City made history with the Smoke-Free Air Act, which ensured all New Yorkers were able to breathe clean, smoke-free air in the workplace, regardless of whether they work in a high-rise office or neighborhood restaurant or bar. We’re ready to make history again.
Sheila A. Feinberg is the executive director of the New York City Coalition for a Smoke-Free City.