New York state has one drinking age. One minimum age at which people are eligible to drive. One age at which you can vote.
Yet state officials are allowing a major health initiative that affects all New Yorkers — a proposal to raise the minimum age for the purchase of tobacco products — to be imposed on a county-by-county basis.
There are good reasons to let counties and municipalities establish their own laws based on local standards and circumstances unique to a community — such as bar closing times, speed limits on local roads, noise ordinances and right-to-farm laws.
But like other measures that affect the public at large, such as laws banning microbeads and toys containing toxic chemicals, a consistent statewide regulation is warranted for tobacco sales.
California and Hawaii have raised the minimum age to 21, and four other states have it at age 19. Here in New York, the age at which you can buy tobacco products depends on where you happen to be at the time.
Albany County voted to raise its minimum legal sale age to 21 earlier this month, and Schenectady County is considering it next month.
The minimum purchase age is 21 in New York City and in one Long Island county, Suffolk County. It's 19 in the adjacent county on Long Island, Nassau County, as well as in Onondaga County (Syracuse area). It's still 18 in the remaining counties.
There's no reason for the piece-meal approach when it comes to public health. If it's a good idea in one county, it's a good idea in all 62.
The general public, retailers, police and government health agencies are entitled to a consistent policy statewide in order to eliminate confusion over where the law applies and what it applies to.
In addition to the age, there is also inconsistency among individual counties about which products are covered under the purchase age. Does it just apply to the purchase of regular cigarettes only or does it apply to all tobacco products such as chewing tobacco? And are non-tobacco smoking products, such as e-cigarettes and liquid nicotine, included in the minimum purchase age?
Does it apply to everyone, or are members of the active military excluded, as they are under California's law?
A single statewide minimum age would make it easier for convenience stores and other businesses that operate in different counties to impose the same sales policy, employee training and signage from store to store.
It also would allow for the creation of a broad education campaign about the dangers of taking up smoking at a young age, using the 21 year age as a starting-off point.
Raising the smoking age from 18 to 21 is long overdue. Smoking is the leading cause of preventable death in America, and the younger you start, the more dangerous it is.
A 2015 Institute of Medicine study estimated that increasing the tobacco purchase age to 21 will result in 200,000 fewer premature deaths for those born between 2000 and 2019.
If New York takes the dangers of smoking seriously, it needs to consider a statewide law raising the minimum age across the entire state, not one county at a time.