NEW YORK CITY - No one under 21 would be able to buy cigarettes in New York City, under a new proposal announced Monday that marks the latest in a decade of moves to crack down on smoking in the nation's largest city.
New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn discussed details of a proposed law that would raise the minimum age for tobacco purchases from 18 to 21. City Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley, some of Quinn's fellow City Council members and health advocates joined her.
Under federal law, no one under 18 can buy tobacco anywhere in the country, but some states and localities have raised it to 19. Texas lawmakers recently tried to increase the minimum age to 21, but the plan stalled.
Public health advocates say a higher minimum age discourages, or at least delays, young people from starting smoking and thereby limits their health risks. But opponents of such measures have said 18-year-olds, legally considered adults, should be able to make their own decisions about whether or not to smoke.
Some communities, including Needham, Mass., have raised the minimum age to 21, but New York would be the biggest city to do so.
"With this legislation, we'll be targeting the age group at which the overwhelming majority of smokers start," Quinn said.
Officials say 80 percent of NYC smokers started before age 21, and an estimated 20,000 New York City public high school students now smoke.
While it's already illegal for many of them to buy cigarettes, officials say this measure would play a key role by making it illegal for them to turn to slightly older friends to buy smokes for them. The vast majority of people who get asked to do that favor are between 18 and 21 themselves, city officials say.
"We know that enforcement is never going to be perfect," but this measure should make it "much harder" for teens to get cigarettes, Farley said.
The Richmond, Va.-based Altria Group Inc., parent company of Philip Morris USA, which makes the top-selling Marlboro brand, had no immediate comment, said spokesman David Sutton.
He previously noted that the company supported federal legislation that in 2009 gave the Food and Drug Administration the power to regulate tobacco products, which includes various retail restrictions.
Under Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the health commissioners he has appointed, including Farley, New York has rolled out a slate of anti-smoking initiatives.
Bloomberg, a billionaire who has given $600 million of his own money to anti-smoking efforts around the world, began taking on tobacco use in the city shortly after he became mayor in 2002.
Over his years in office, the city -- at times with the council's involvement -- helped impose the highest cigarette taxes in the country, barred smoking at parks and on beaches and conducted sometimes graphic advertising campaigns about the hazards of smoking.
Last month, the Bloomberg administration unveiled a proposal to keep cigarettes out of sight in stores until an adult customer asks for a pack, as well as stopping shops from taking cigarette coupons and honoring discounts.
Bloomberg's administration and public health advocates praise the initiatives as bold moves to help people live better. Adult smoking rates in the city have fallen from 21.5% in 2002 to 14.8% in 2011, Farley has said.
But the measures also have drawn complaints, at least initially, that they are bad for business.
Several of New York City's smoking regulations have survived court challenges. But a federal appeals court said last year that the city couldn't force tobacco retailers to display gruesome images of diseased lungs and decaying teeth.
Quinn, a leading Democratic candidate to succeed Bloomberg next year, has often been perceived as an ally of his.
Bloomberg also has pushed a number of other pioneering public-health measures, such as compelling chain restaurants to post calorie counts on their menus, banning artificial trans fats in restaurants, and attempting to limit the size of sugary drinks. A court struck down the big-beverage rule last month, but the city is appealing and Bloomberg has urged voluntary compliance in the meantime.
While Bloomberg has led the way on many anti-smoking initiatives, this one arose from the City Council, Farley said. City Councilman James Gennaro, who lost his mother to lung cancer after she smoked for decades, has been a particularly strong advocate.