New York City To Ban Tobacco Sales To Anyone Under 21

Under 21 in New York City? No more smokes for you!

Cigarettes On Display

The New York City Council has voted to ban the sale of cigarettes or any other tobacco product to anyone under the age of 21, a move that appears to be a first for any major American jurisdiction:

Buying cigarettes in New York City is about to become a lot harder for young people, as lawmakers on Wednesday adopted the strictest limits on tobacco purchases of any major American city.

The legal age for buying tobacco, including cigarettes, electronic cigarettes, cigars and cigarillos will rise to 21, from 18, under a bill adopted by the City Council and which Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has said he would sign. The new minimum age will take effect six months after signing.

The proposal provoked some protest among people who pointed out that New Yorkers under 21 can drive, vote and fight in wars, and should be considered mature enough to decide whether to buy cigarettes. But the Bloomberg administration’s argument — that raising the age to buy cigarettes would discourage people from becoming addicted in the first place — won the day.

“This is literally legislation that will save lives,” Christine C. Quinn, the Council speaker, said shortly before the bill passed 35 to 10.

In pushing the bill, city officials said that the earlier people began smoking, the more likely they were to become addicted. And they pointed out that while the youth smoking rate in the city has declined by more than half since the beginning of the mayor’s administration, to 8.5 percent in 2007 from 17.6 percent in 2001, it has recently stalled.

Besides raising the age to buy cigarettes, the Council also approved various other antismoking measures, such as increased penalties for retailers who evade tobacco taxes, a prohibition on discounts for tobacco products, and a minimum price of $10.50 a pack for cigarettes and little cigars.

The new law is a capstone to more than a decade of efforts by Mr. Bloomberg, like banning smoking in most public places, that have given the city some of the toughest antismoking policies in the world.

In one concession to the cigarette industry, the administration dropped a proposal that would force retailers to keep cigarettes out of sight. City officials said they were doing it because they had not resolved how to deal with the new phenomenon of electronic cigarettes, but others worried that if the tobacco industry lodged a First Amendment challenge to the so-called display ban, it could have derailed the entire package.

The smoking age is 18 in most of the country, but some states have made it 19. Some counties have also adopted 19, including Nassau and Suffolk on Long Island. Needham, Mass., a suburb of Boston, raised the smoking age to 21 in 2005.

James Calvin, president of the New York Association of Convenience Stores, warned on Wednesday that thousands of retail jobs could be lost because the law would reduce traffic not just for tobacco, but also on incidental purchases like coffee or lottery tickets. He predicted that the law would do little to curb smoking, as it does not outlaw the possession of cigarettes by under-age smokers, only their purchase.

Just before the vote, Nicole Spencer, 16, was in Union Square in Manhattan with a cigarette wedged between her fingers.

“I don’t think that’s going to work,” Nicole said when she heard about the plan to raise the age.

She said she began smoking when she was about 13, and had no trouble getting cigarettes. “I buy them off people or I bum them off people,” she said.

I’ve never been a cigarette smoker myself. Oh, you’ll be able to get me to light up a good cigar on occasion, although even those are far less common than they used to be, but cigarettes have never been my thing ever since I tried one at an age that, shall we say, was less than the 18 at the time. Smoking cigarettes made me kind of nauseous, so I avoided it. However, I knew plenty of people in my age group who did smoke — our High School even had a designated outdoor “smoking area” where students, many of them clearly younger than 16, and sometimes teachers would hang out getting their fix even on the coldest New Jersey winter day — and my experience at the time that most High School kids got their cigarettes exactly as the girl above describes them by getting them from someone else who was legally able to purchase them. Raising the legal age to purchase cigarettes would just seem to me to make this kind of practice more common, especially among people who are between 18 and 21. Additionally, the fact that jurisdictions around New York City won’t be imposing a similar age limit on cigarette purchases also means that, in many cases, all people will need to do is take a trip across a political boundary line to a jurisdiction where they are legally able to purchase tobacco.  So, yes, it’s possible that this will reduce the use of tobacco by some people under 21 (perhaps most probably by people under 18 who would now have to find someone 21 or older to get them cigarettes, something many already manage to do when it comes to alcohol), but the reductions aren’t likely to be all that substantial.

Leaving aside whether the policy works on some level or not, this strikes me as yet another example of a group of people who are legally recognized as being adults being restricted in just how adult they can be “for their own good.” Thirty or so years ago, we had this same debate over raising the drinking age to twenty-one and, thanks largely to a massive lobbying campaign and the power of the Federal Government, that change was enacted relatively quickly. As it turns out, though, alcohol use among people between 18-21 has not necessarily decreased from the levels it was at before the law changed and, measured by the rise of binge drinking on America’s college campuses, may have actually increased over the years. In recent years, as a matter of fact, a large number of college and university leaders have come together in something called the Amethyst Initiative, which urges the reexamination of the decision to increase the drinking age to 21, with specific reference to the impact it has had at the college and university level. Other commentators have also questioned the wisdom of the higher drinking age and, while alcohol and tobacco are very different products with differing impacts on the human body, it seems clear that their arguments apply just as equally to what New York City is going to do here.

Fundamentally, though, laws such as this seem incompatible with the idea of individual liberty. The law tells us that someone who is eighteen is legally able to marry, enter into contracts, buy a home, pay taxes, enlist in the military, and engage in a whole host of other “adult” activities. There doesn’t seem to me to be any rational justification for saying that such a person should not also be able to legally drink a beer and smoke a cigarette if that’s what they want to do. Yes, there are health risks involved in both activities, but there are health risks involved in any number of activities that we allow people to engage in. What right should the City Council of New York or any other political entity have to tell an adult citizen of the United States that they can’t enjoy a drink and a smoke if that’s what they want to do? Nobody is saying you have to do either, of course, but if you’re over 18 and you want to then the government shouldn’t be telling you that you can’t.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. David M says:

    Either 18 year-olds are adults or they are not. The other anti-smoking measures mentioned seem a lot less objectionable than the 21 year age restriction.

  2. Mikey says:

    If someone’s old enough to judge which candidate to vote for in an election, or sign up to serve in the military, or enter into a contract, or live entirely on their own, or any of the gazillion other things we’ve decided 18-year-olds are mature enough to do, they’re certainly entitled to be able to buy a pack of Marlboros. (Or a beer, as pretty much every other advanced nation allows 18-year-olds to do.)

    This is just more nanny-city idiocy.

  3. Tony W says:

    What a contrast – I saw cigarette machines in Vegas last week, thought those were long gone.

  4. Steven simon says:

    It appears to me that mayor Bloomberg and his cohorts are control freaks.when was health ever about protecting people from themselves.this law smacks of is about time that smokers stood up to the school bully.

  5. Ernieyeball says:

    I started smoking at 13. Late for my peers in those days. Finally put the damn things down 35 years later after I had worked up to a 3 pack a day habit.
    It was not the government do-gooders and their taxes and laws and their insatiable desire to control other people’s behavior that made me quit.
    This will not stop anyone from smoking tobacco any more than laws against smoking weed have prevented citizens from sparking up.
    At least the cops will now have more people to hassle…yeah, they need something to do.

  6. Liberal Capitalist says:

    The age of adulthood should be 19 in our society.

    Sure… I’m just one guy, writing a comment in a blog, on the fringes of the internet…

    But consider this: many 18 year olds are still in High School. And that causes a lot of Child / Adult issues: You can do this… but you can’t do that.

    When the majority are 19, they are out of high school and starting their responsible (or irresponsible) life’s journey.

    The challenge with 21 is the same problem in colleges… it’s too easy for folks to break the law when so many of their peers are legal.

    So: Change “adulthood” to 19, across the board.

    Follow what are the natural “breaks” in pour society.

    (As for cigarettes… farking nuke the entire industry. Single serving doses of death as far as I’m concerned. Either that, or increase taxes yet tenfold so it will cover their ill heath and untimely death. Why yes, I am a recovered smoker… Why do you ask? )

  7. al-Ameda says:

    Look, I believe that getting smoking out of restaurants, businesses, and many common public places has been beneficial, but really ……. Tobacco is a legal substance and 18 years olds are legally considered to be adults for most social and business purposes, so this seems to me to be completely unnecessary.

  8. Ernieyeball says:

    @Liberal Capitalist: Single serving doses of death…

    That’s why I call them coffin nails.

  9. C. Clavin says:

    It should be 18…this is nonsensical.
    That said…cigarettes are poison…should be outlawed…and would be if not for the powerful Tobacco Lobby. In ’05 Tobacco got almost $2B in direct farm subsidies. The indirect subsidy to the Tobacco Industry must be astronomical. If forced to pay for actual damages the industry would fold up like a paper napkin.

  10. Anderson says:

    Kids that young have no business using tobacco. They should be sticking to pot.

  11. Joe R. says:

    Either that, or increase taxes yet tenfold so it will cover their ill heath and untimely death.

    Statistically speaking, smokers use fewer health care dollars than non-smokers. They tend to die before they spend a lot.

  12. grumpy realist says:

    *sigh*. I go along with those who say if you’re old enough to join the army and get shot at, you’re old enough to drink booze, drive a car, and smoke as many ciggies as you want.

    At least NYC is raising the limit all in one go. I was in Massachusetts when the Powers-That-Be there decided to raise the drinking age from 18 to 21. But not all at once. Oh no. They raised it by one year each year, to “soften the blow.” Which meant I was in the Kafkaeque situation of being able to drink lawfully for 2 months each year, then illegal for 10 months, then legal for another 2 months…..

  13. KM says:

    The only reason tobacco isn’t a Schedule 3 drug (at least!!) is the fact that is been socially acceptable for the majority of this country’s life – same as alcohol. I’ve always felt tobacco should be restricted as it has little to no medical benefits, a hell of a lot of medical injury and the potential to directly affect other via intake methods (secondhand smoke). If you wanna smoke, fine, your tombstone. But it’s an addictive, medically-worthless, scientifically-proven dangerous drug and should be treated as such in a logical and fair manner under the law.

    Still, adult is adult. If an adult wants to take a drug, legal or no, that is their choice and the consequences be on their head. If 18 can vote and kill, 18 can drink and smoke (and rent a car while you’re at it). Stop with the infantilization, already. Leave the adults alone!

  14. Dave says:

    “The Fascist State organizes the nation, but leaves a sufficient margin of liberty to the individual; the latter is deprived of all useless and possibly harmful freedom, but retains what is essential; the deciding power in this question cannot be the individual, but the State alone…”

  15. Todd says:

    I’m not sure how many commenters on this blog live in NYC, but they are the only ones who’s opinion on this topic really matters. If things like this and the silly soda ban bug a majority of the residents enough, they’ll eventually vote for a mayor who promises to change the policy.

    For everyone else who’s complaining about something that doesn’t even affect them, the “solution” is easy … just don’t move to NYC.

  16. Anonne says:

    And yet, who wants these “responsible adults” in their insurance risk pool?

  17. Steven simon says:

    @Todd: the problem is Todd is that what becomes law in America one day can become law in another country the following day

  18. Ernieyeball says:

    @grumpy realist: Which meant I was in the Kafkaeque situation of being able to drink lawfully for 2 months each year, then illegal for 10 months, then legal for another 2 months…..

    You poor fvcker you. I’ll bet you abided by the law in those tortuous times just like you always obey the speeding laws today!

  19. Ernieyeball says:

    @Todd:..but they are the only ones who’s opinion on this topic really matters.

    I guess the 50.9 million tourists (40 m domestic, 10 m international) who dropped $34 BILLION on NYC in 2011 just don’t count for nothing.

  20. george says:


    And yet, who wants these “responsible adults” in their insurance risk pool?

    So they should be tried as minors if they commit a crime?

    And oddly enough, it seems everyone wants them in their health insurance pool.

  21. Mikey says:

    @C. Clavin:

    That said…cigarettes are poison…should be outlawed

    I’m pretty sure this would work about as well as outlawing alcohol did, or as outlawing marijuana does.

  22. bill says:

    @David M: true, you can vote and go to war but you can’t drink booze or smoke cigs? nanny state “logic” there, pure and simple.

  23. Laurence Bachmann says:

    The fact that people choose to behave against their health interest doesn’t mean government has to facilitate the decision. Furthermore it is naive or just stupid to think smoking is a choice freely made. It is manipulated and influenced by marketers who have been exposed as proven liars. Finally, complaining about discrepancies in military service, driving or smoking show a fundamental misunderstanding about how laws are made. The federal government determines military eligibility: states issue driving licenses; local communities can regulate the sale of tobacco. It would be surprising if they were uniform.

    The 80% of the city that doesn’t smoke benefits by any regulation that restricts carcinogens. If that makes us a nanny state, fine by me.

  24. Laurence Bachmann says:

    @Ernieyeball: Actually they don’t count when it comes to things like this. The residents of a city determine ordinances through their local government. Not people in for a weekend. Also, the vast majority of those visitors are non smokers who are hardly inconvenienced by fewer people with access to cigarettes. Doubt their going to be upset.
    @KM: @KM:

  25. Ernieyeball says:

    @C. Clavin: That said…cigarettes are poison…If forced to pay for actual damages the industry would fold up like a paper napkin.

    You can substitute alcohol for cigarettes here if you want to. But nobody wants to.

  26. KM says:

    Lost you at the end there, @Laurence. I think part of your post went missing.

    @Mikey: I’m not suggesting making tobacco illegal, merely placing it under the current drug schedule that exists. That’s only fair and logical that ALL drugs get filed the same way under the same system. If the system makes it illegal (Schedule I like MJ) then perhaps it might be time to revisit the system instead of just ignoring it.

    As per Wikipedia: “Schedule III substances are those that have the following findings:
    -The drug or other substance has a potential for abuse less than the drugs or other substances in schedules I and II.
    – The drug or other substance has a currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States.
    – Abuse of the drug or other substance may lead to moderate or low physical dependence or high psychological dependence.[25]”

    This classification includes Anabolic steroids, Marinol, and Hydrocodone / codeine – all things you can get legally, albeit restricted. Tobacco should be on the list as well – you can obtain it but there are some reasonable restrictions in the way. Personally, it think it would be a Schedule II or higher due to the lack of medical use but stranger things have happened with this….. And if it’s a Scheduled drug, local ordinances wouldn’t mean that much so the age issue would be moot.

    Just because you like the drug doesn’t mean it can be singled out by law favorably for you. Popularity =/= legality or otherwise we’d all have the chance to smoke weed freely. The only reason its not there already is the smokers would have revolted back in the day (same with alcohol).

  27. Rob in CT says:

    I don’t really see the point of this on such a local level. I could see having an argument about this at a state or even national level (or in-between, a coalition of states, whatever), but it seems silly for NYC to go it alone.

    Basically: meh.

  28. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    Why is smoking still legal for anyone?I thought it was established that people don’t have the right to make choices that harm them and might harm others. Everyone knows that smoking is completely harmful, with no beneficial effects, and harms others through higher health care costs and second-hand smoke.

    But if we don’t wanna go all-out and ban tobacco, why not just deny health insurance to smokers?

  29. Steven simon says:

    @Jenos Idanian #13: I wish all people who go on about passive smoking would read the biggest survey carried out by James enstrom commissioned by the world health organisation.the result passive smoking virtually non existent.i wonder how many of you anti smokers drive cars polluting the atmosphere spouting out all those carcinogens.lung cancer is multfactoral.many things can cause it but it is easy to blame it on smokers.the smoking ban is funded by pharmaceutical companies in whose interest it is for us all to give up so they can sell their products.if people were honest they would say that they don’t like smoking because of the smell.

  30. Laurence Bachmann says:

    @KM: I am happy to say a object to smoking because it is foul smelling. But there are a multitude of other reasons, and they are related to health. I’m going to go with the Surgeon General on this: not somebody who is stupidly denying the risks of tobacco. Join the creationist/world is flat/intelligent [sic] design crowd.

    As for the car pollution–I don’t own one. I take mass transit. The nanny state (NYC) has a great public transportation system…and really strong anti smoking laws. Love them both.

  31. Pepe La Pew says:

    @Steven simon: Your passive cigarette smoke STINKS!

  32. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    @Steven simon: Your sarcasm detector needs calibrating. I was applying the arguments to justify ObamaCare’s individual mandate to smoking.

  33. Steven simon says:

    @Pepe La Pew: the difference between you and me is that I may not agree with you but I respect your opinion but you neither agrees nor respect my are the bully.

  34. Steven simon says:

    @Laurence Bachmann: if you bothered to analyse my comments where did i say that there were no risks in smoking.i stated lung cancer can be caused by many you not know anybody who has had lung cancer and never smoked in their lives.

  35. Laurence Bachmann says:

    @Steven simon: An argument as banal as yours belies analysis. Sure, other things cause cancer. CIGS ARE THE PRIMARY cause of lung cancer AND heart disease. So it ABSOLUTELY is a public policy concern, and should be addressed by elected officials. It is in the civic interest to limit smoking as much as possible. It’s not controversial. Only if you insist you have a right to not only be dangerous to yourself and inconsiderate to others. I don’t remember that part of the constitution. Stop confusing license with liberty and sound policy with a nanny state. The city of NY doesn’t have to indulge your stupid choices. Too bad if you don’t like it.

  36. ernieyeball says:

    @Steven simon:you are the bully.

    How am I the bully when I write:

    This will not stop anyone from smoking tobacco any more than laws against smoking weed have prevented citizens from sparking up.

    (Damn, gave myself away.)

  37. Steven simon says:

    @Laurence Bachmann: so my argument is banal.are you an expert on this or do you believe what you are told.i am questioning the data on these surveys.if you really had time to look into this more deeply this is not purely about health it is about money.why don’t you read pofessor enstrom was the most comprehensive survey ever done and he was an American.i guess you just hate smoking and humility or compassion.but don’t worry you are not on your own

  38. KM says:

    @Laurence Bachmann: Not sure about your post and tone – I actually agree with you that smoking is a bad thing and should be regulated. I think it’s a huge time waster in regards productivity and life management, a huge drain on the budget and actively harmful to human life. I’ve worked in a cancer hospital; I’ve seen upclose (and sometimes inside!!) the end results of this drug. Society would be better off without it, IMHO. However, my objections are based on how it affects others – what you chose to do to yourself is your own choice. Second hand smoke, however miniscule the risk, affects another who did not actively chose to smoke. Smokers at work ruin productivity and force others to pick up their slack when they take several 10+ breaks minutes a day for their habit.

    If it’s just you, knock yourself out. If a legal adult wants to make a stupid decision involving just themselves, feel free. If your decision kills you, hey that’s nature at work. But what drinkers and smokers forget is its not just them – on the road, in the restaurant, at work or at home most of the time. That’s why they are getting the negative publicity- people have figured out they just don’t have to tolerate that anymore. Again, it should be regulated like any other drug. If the regulations end up shutting it down, all the better.

    And where the transport reference come from??

  39. Matt says:

    @KM: That’s why I support vaps aka E-cigs. All the joy of the cig without the smoke second or first hand…

  40. An Interested Party says:

    I assume that all of these people whining about the “nanny state” are in favor of drug legalization, among other controversial moves, to allow people to have more freedom to live (and die) as they choose…

  41. ernieyeball says:

    @An Interested Party: I assume that all of these people whining about the “nanny state” are in favor of drug legalization,..

    Count me in. I’m an anarchist. The less the boot of the opressive state cramps my style the better I like it.
    Of course now that Illinois is legalizing MedWeed I guess I will have to compromise my ideals and subject myself to the evils of state administered pot distribution.
    Patients (cough, cough) will be limited to 2.5 oz. every 2 weeks.
    Still can’t find out if Medicare Part D will be paying for the scripts.

  42. george says:

    @An Interested Party:

    I assume that all of these people whining about the “nanny state” are in favor of drug legalization, among other controversial moves, to allow people to have more freedom to live (and die) as they choose…

    I’m not using the term nanny state (every state is a nanny state when you get down to it – as soon as there’s a police service making sure your neighbor’s don’t beat you up or kill you, all pretence of tough individualism is somewhat hard to take seriously – and as a side point, I note many of the tough conservatives who rail against nanny states alsocomplain that the state isn’t doing enough to protect them from potentially dangerous people), but I’m against drug laws (they simply don’t work unless your goal is to keep the prison industry and organized crime profits high), against the various moral laws (keep the state out of the bedroom, seriously), against deciding for women whether they can have abortion or not.

    In fact, I suspect a lot of folks are pretty consistent in not wanting the state to get involved at this level. Banning smoking indoors in public places makes sense, for the same reason banning the release of other toxic chemicals makes sense – outdoors much less so considering the amount of toxic chemicals put out by cars and industry). Banning the right of adults (and at 18 you’ve adult responsibilities under the law) to buy cigarrettes to use in private is simply pointless.

    Unless they’re talking about raising the age that you’re legally an adult (criminal court etc) as well. Which would be stupid, but at least consistently stupid.