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Tobacco age raise faces hurdle in Onondaga County

Tom Sinon

Anti-smoking advocates in Onondaga County are pushing to raise the county’s legal age for purchasing tobacco products from 19 to 21. The Tobacco Action Coalition of Onondaga County says this would have a dramatic effect in reducing the number of teens and young adults that get addicted to nicotine. 

Credit Ellen Abbott / WRVO

Physician Leslie Kohman of the Upstate Cancer Center says the change would restrict the amount of access teenagers have to tobacco products.

“If we raise that to 21, fewer 21 year olds hang around with 17 year olds than 19 year olds do,” Kohman said. “So you’re going to reduce the percent of kids who can’t buy tobacco products already from being able to have access to their friends that are 19.”

But the initiative has hit a substantial roadblock: an exemption of military personnel.  They’re currently exempt from the 19-year age limit in Onondaga County, and Legislature Health Committee Chairman Danny Leidke doesn’t see legislators agreeing to change that anytime soon.

"Every legislator I’ve spoken to regarding that says it’s a deal breaker,” Leidke said. “There’s no sense bringing something forward when it’s a failure from the start.  There has to be compromise.  That’s how things are done, and if they’re not willing to compromise on that, I think it’s a dead issue here.”

Credit Ellen Abbott / WRVO

Liedeke says the military exemption is the only way the county raised the purchase age to 19 eight years ago, and the raise to 21 will only pass under the same circumstances. Even so, Kohman says the coalition won’t compromise.

“The military has a terrible problem with health problems,” Kohman said. “The military leadership itself is very opposed to tobacco use and smoking among its members.”

Nine municipalities in New York have already adopted the 21-year age limit, including New York City. Advocates are hoping if enough local governments join them, it would spur a statewide initiative.

Ellen produces news reports and features related to events that occur in the greater Syracuse area and throughout Onondaga County. Her reports are heard regularly in regional updates in Morning Edition and All Things Considered.