New York gets failing marks for tobacco control


Imagine an infant, a baby girl, who jolts with pain each time she coughs up mucus and blood as she battles bronchitis caused by secondhand cigarette smoke.

It’s a difficult scene to envision. According to the American Lung Association, however, it’s a common one.

The nonprofit organization says that between 150,000 and 300,000 infants and toddlers develop lower respiratory tract illnesses like bronchitis and pneumonia each year as a result of breathing secondhand smoke.

In a recent report titled “State of Tobacco Control,” the ALA estimated that secondhand smoke kills more than 41,000 people annually. That is one of several disturbing findings.

The report gave New York state a grade of F for its tobacco prevention and cessation funding, a D for its coverage and access to cessation services, and a D for its limitations on the sale of tobacco to those under age 21.

That is simply unacceptable. Clearly, New York should be doing more to encourage smokers to quit, while working to stop people — particularly young people –– from taking up smoking in the first place.

Some 2.2 million New York adults –– nearly 18 percent of the state’s adult population –– smoke. Meanwhile, more than 500,000 of those ages 14 to 18 –– or 28 percent of the high school-age population –– have tried smoking, according to ALA and state statistics. Some 135,000 New York teens are regular smokers.

Jeff Seyler, president and CEO of the ALA of the Northeast, is urging New York’s Legislature to enact a series of proposals to curb smoking in the state. We agree that more must be done.

First, Seyler says, New York should enact legislation prohibiting the sale of tobacco products to those under age 21. Right now, New York has a hodgepodge of confusing age limits that vary by county and even by city.

In 2013, New York City became the first large city in the country to prohibit the sale of cigarettes and other tobacco products to anyone under 21. Suffolk County followed the next year, but not Nassau, which permits the sale of tobacco to anyone 19 and older.

People as young as 18 can buy cigarettes –– and any other tobacco products –– in most places upstate, except Onondaga County, where the minimum age is 19, and in Albany and Chautauqua counties, where it’s 21.

New York state needs one policy that would set a standard across all counties and cities –– and that standard, as the ALA recommends, should be 21. We know from brain research that young people do not fully develop the ability to reason until age 21 or 22. Before that, they are highly influenced by emotion. That’s why the state should limit their ability to make a decision as life-altering –– and potentially catastrophic to one’s health and finances –– as taking up smoking.

We acknowledge that teens, if they’re really determined, will find a way to smoke, but why lend them a helping hand by allowing them to buy tobacco products when they’re as young as 18? Close to 95 percent of smokers take up the habit in their teens. Smoking prevention campaigns should thus be targeted at this vulnerable age group.

At the same time, the ALA says, New York is spending only a fraction of what it should on smoking cessation programs –– a little less than $42.5 million. That might sound like a lot, but the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that the state spend upward of $203 million.

New York takes in hundreds of millions of dollars in sales taxes from tobacco products each year. Why aren’t we spending more of that money to stop people from smoking, helping to improve their health and reducing medical costs, and ultimately benefiting us all?

The ALA gave New York kudos for its efforts to limit smoking in public spaces. We agree. That isn’t enough, however.

Those who need help in overcoming a tobacco addiction should call (866) NY-QUITS, or (866) 697-8487.

Did you know?

• Smoking costs the U.S. more than $332 billion in direct health care costs and lost productivity each year.

• Secondhand smoke causes $5.6 billion in lost productivity each year.