Five Ways NYC Kids Won and Big Tobacco Lost This Week

Ten years ago, New York City enacted landmark legislation to curb the dangers of tobacco use, which is the number one cause of preventable death. This month, the City made history once again.

Two City Council bills encompassing five critical steps were passed on October 30 that will significantly reduce the scourge of tobacco use citywide. Collectively, they will stop tobacco industry discounting schemes that keep tobacco affordable and appealing to kids, crack down on evasion of tobacco taxes and increase the minimum legal age for the sale of tobacco products. These are progressive additions to New York's robust efforts to reduce tobacco use and will undoubtedly help mold a healthier city.

But first, let's put this legislation into historical context. In recent years New York City has built a fortress against the advance of Big Tobacco, using high tobacco taxes, public health media campaigns and ongoing cessation efforts as building blocks. The city launched this defense with the passage of the Smoke-Free Air Act in 2003, a policy that restricted smoking in indoor spaces. At the time, the bill was met with the outcry: Restaurants and bars would close! Tourism would evaporate! Jobs would be lost! Essentially, opponents argued, the sky would fall.

Well, the sky didn't fall -- quite the opposite. Tourism boomed; the number of bars and restaurants nearly doubled; and the public quickly came to enjoy and demand smoke-free places. The City now has a whole generation of New Yorkers who can't picture a "smoky bar" and are horrified to think of ashtrays on dining tables. We guard our right to breathe clean indoor air. And as New York City goes, so goes the country.

The importance of this progress cannot be understated. Tobacco is a deeply dangerous product. It is a leading cause of cancer, heart and lung disease, and steals the lives of 25,000 New Yorkers every year. When used as directed, tobacco products cause addiction, illness and premature death. Yet this knowledge alone is not enough to win the fight against this killer. New York City's youth smoking rates have remained stagnant for the past five years. Smoking is ingrained in our world on multiple fronts and cemented by Big Tobacco's relentless marketing. This industry has the force of an army behind it and there is no magic wand or single policy that can quell their well-funded efforts. Instead, it takes a multifaceted, comprehensive approach.

Today, New York City stands armed with just that -- an across-the-board defense against Big Tobacco. Both of the recent policy changes are necessary steps to effectively protect children from the dangers of tobacco and save lives. Here is how it will work, and help.

Step one: Prohibiting tobacco product discounts. This includes coupons, sales and multipack discounts. Extensive research shows high cost tobacco means fewer users. New York City already boasts the highest cigarette tax in the country and, consequently, one of the lowest smoking rates. Price discounting undermines the progress that has been made from high tobacco taxes.

Step two: Setting a minimum price on cigarettes and cigars. Under this law, cigarettes and little cigars cannot be sold at retail for less than $10.50 per 20-pack. This ensures that the public health benefits of high-cost tobacco will remain in place.

Step three: Setting minimum package sizes for certain cigars and little cigars. This will close the loophole that allows cigars to be sold individually, and keep cheap tobacco out of the hands of kids.

Step four: Enhanced tobacco tax enforcement efforts to reduce tax evasion by retailers. This could recoup millions of dollars that the city is losing, and level the playing field for honest retailers that are following the law.

Step five: Increasing from 18 to 21 the legal age of sale for tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, which have doubled in youth usage in the last year. Data shows that 95 percent of adult smokers begin smoking before they turn 21, and the ages of 18 to 21 are a critical period when many smokers move from experimentation to regular smoking. According to the Surgeon General's latest report, prevention efforts must focus on kids, teens and young adults. Increasing the age of sale will help reduce smoking rates among these important age groups. New York City is the ideal market to test this policy, where it can be supported by strong pre-existing tobacco laws.

The American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, American Heart/American Stroke Association, American Lung Association of the Northeast, Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and NYC Coalition for a Smoke-Free City expect that these measures will go a long way to plug the cracks left in the fortress New York City has built against Big Tobacco. New York has once again take aggressive, pioneering steps towards eliminating the greatest public health menace of our time, and we have a safer, healthier community because of it.

Jeff Seyler
American Lung Association of the Northeast

Michele Bonan
American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network

Robin Vitale
American Heart Association / American Stroke Association

Kevin O'Flaherty
Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids

Sheelah Feinberg
NYC Coalition for a Smoke-Free City