Anti-tobacco advocates hope to raise purchase age to 21 in WNY’s Southern Tier

Jan 4, 2016

More than 100 cities across the country have raised the legal purchasing age for tobacco to 21, and the entire state of Hawaii followed suit on New Year’s Day. Now, anti-smoking advocates in Western New York are hoping to see the same thing happen in the region’s Southern Tier. 

Most underage tobacco users take up the habit by age 16 and often rely on 18 year-olds to supply them. That relationship is the main target of the Tobacco 21 policy which Jonathan Chaffee, a youth outreach coordinator for Tobacco Free Western New York and Roswell Park Cancer Institute. He said it would widen the gap between legal smokers and their underage solicitors.

Jonathan Chaffee, Roswell Park Cancer Institute
Credit Jonathan Chaffee / Roswell Park Cancer Institute

“A lot of 21-year olds do not hang out with youth that are under the age of 18 or younger,” said Chaffee. “They would lose that access for someone to buy them tobacco products.”

Chaffee said the key impact of Tobacco 21 is that it would prevent the effects of nicotine on adolescent brains.

“Nicotine actually will affect impulse, addiction, and decision-making,” explained Chaffee. “So if a Tobacco 21 law was passed, it would help those kids who are 18 – their brain is still developing – it would help them by being more mature and being able to hopefully not become addicted to nicotine.”

Chafee said initial reaction from some county leaders and their constituents has been positive.

“I think it goes along with some of the thinking. I mean Chautauqua County has a possession law already that anyone under the age of 18 cannot possess tobacco, and of course the City of Salamanca also has a possession law,” pointed out Chaffee. “So Tobacco 21 kind of goes in those steps with just getting tobacco products out of younger people’s hands.”

There is no specific forecast on how Tobacco 21 would impact overall smoking rates, but Chaffee said the quickest impact in the first few years would be on youth smoking.

If the law known as Tobacco 21 were to be implemented it would be up to local officials to determine how, according to Chaffee. He said in his mind such a change ought to take effect on a set date.

“Like Hawaii – they voted on it quite a while ago and decided on this future date, January 1st. They’re giving people the time to get used to it. I’m guessing they probably did that to give stores the proper time to educate their employees.”

Chaffee said the possibility of grandfathering tobacco users between the ages of 18 and 21 would also be a decision for local officials if the law were enacted.

While this campaign is going on, an agency in Cattaraugus County is taking a closer look at smoking rates among junior high and high school students. The Council on Addiction Recovery Services completed its first grant-funded survey in November. 6th, 8th, 10th and 12th graders were asked about their tobacco use. The survey will follow the students every two years. Chaffee said information could help determine the effectiveness of Tobacco 21 if it were enacted.