Mayor Michael Bloomberg (AP Graphic)
NEW YORK (USA TODAY) -- New York put forward a proposal Monday that, if adopted, would make it the first major U.S. city to raise the legal age for buying cigarettes from 18 to 21 - the same age for buying alcohol.
The proposal is part of a decade-long, anti-tobacco campaign by outgoing Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has imposed some of the highest cigarettes taxes in the country, banned smoking in parks and run graphic ads on the hazards of smoking.
Last month, his administration proposed a requirement that stores keep cigarettes out of sight unless an adult customer asks for them.
"That will literally save lives," New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn said about the new bid to raise the age for buying - but not necessarily using or possessing - tobacco products. "The more difficult it is for (young people) to gain access to tobacco products, the less likely they are to start smoking."
Quinn, a leading mayoral candidate who's pushing the proposal along with Health Commissioner Thomas Farley, says 80% of the city's smokers started before age 21.
Although at least four states - Alabama, Alaska, New Jersey and Utah - have raised the legal buying age to 19, the Boston suburb of Needham, Mass., appears to be the only U.S. city so far to raise the minimum to 21.
Federal law bans tobacco sales to those younger than 18. Public health advocates have welcomed the city's leadership in fighting tobacco use, noting its adult smoking rate has fallen from 21.5% in 2002 to 14.8% in 2011 - well below the current national average of 19.3%..
"This proposal builds on the unprecedented progress New York City has made in reducing smoking," says Susan M. Liss, executive director of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, an anti-smoking group that receives funding from Bloomberg, a billionaire.
Critics have complained that some of the measures are bad for business. Last year, a federal appeals court said the city couldn't force tobacco retailers to display gruesome images of decaying teeth and diseased lungs.
Bloomberg has launched other groundbreaking public health efforts since becoming mayor in 2002. He has required chain restaurants to post calorie counts on their menus and all restaurants to ban trans fats. He attempted to limit the size of sugary drinks like soda, but a court struck down the proposal last month.
Bloomberg has encouraged voluntary compliance while the city appeals the ruling.