Nationwide Fight Begins Over Raising Tobacco Age to 21

New York City is poised to ban young adults from buying cigarettes, and others may soon follow suit.

A New Yorker smokes a cigarette as Hurricane Sandy approaches on Oct. 28, 2012 in New York City.

Opponents of New York City's new tobacco age limit say young adults will turn to "buttleggers" who already smuggle and deal cigarettes to avoid high taxes.

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New York City councilmen voted Wednesday to raise the legal age for purchasing tobacco from 18 to 21, a measure that will go into effect six months after it's signed into law by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a zealous anti-smoking advocate.

The Big Apple measure – which soared 35-10 through the city council – is part of a nationwide effort that seeks to make illegal the sale of tobacco to young adults.

In New Jersey, legislators are likely to debate a bill soon that would raise that state's age limit to 21. New Jersey is currently tied for the highest statewide tobacco age limit, at 19.

Richard Codey, governor of New Jersey from 2004 to 2006, helped bump the state's age limit from 18 to 19 less than 10 years ago. He's now a state senator and the sponsor of new age limit legislation, which he is confident will prevail – and possibly help start a chain-reaction.

"Someone is going to read this in Connecticut or Illinois or somewhere else and go, yeah that's a good idea," Codey told U.S. News. "The only people who are opposed, obviously, are the tobacco companies. As far as I'm concerned, I'm on the side of the angels."

[RELATED: Drumbeat Intensifies for Electronic Cigarette Regulations]

Codey expects his bill to pass and take effect in early 2014. He hasn't heard from Gov. Chris Christie, R-N.J., but he expects the prospective presidential candidate to consent to the change.

"Are some people going to get someone to buy cigarettes for them when they are not 21? Of course," he said. "But there are other people who are not going to do that and obey the law and by the time they're 21 are more mature and rational will realize that it's not a good thing to do."

Codey says his legislation was inspired by a phone conversation earlier this year with New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, then a candidate for mayor, who called him and shared her plan for the higher age limit. After some conversation, he joined on.

Codey's not sure if his bill would affect electronic cigarette sales – as New York City's law does – but he's opposed to young smokers adopting that technology.

"It's like someone who starts on marijuana, then they want a better high – it's just a reality of life," he said. Electronic cigarette advocates vehemently disagree with such arguments and say the vast majority of users are conventional smokers seeking a healthier alternative.

[READ: Young Adults Left Behind by Colo., Wash. Marijuana Legalization]

One of the largest national anti-tobacco organizations fully supports banning 18-to-21-year-olds from buying cigarettes.

"As states and localities have looked into this, we've begun to get involved," said Danny McGoldrick, vice president for research at the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

McGoldrick said his organization generally supports a "tried and true trifecta" of anti-tobacco policies – higher taxes, public smoking bans and educational campaigns – but will also advocate for raising tobacco age limits to 21 in any jurisdiction considering it.

The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids is currently supporting an attempt to raise the smoking age to 21 at the county level on Hawaii's largest island and has been involved in generalized efforts to raise the age to 21 for around a year.

A fact sheet from the group says around 50 percent of smokers begin using cigarettes daily before they turn 18 and that more than 75 percent of adult smokers do so before they turn 21, arguing that cutting off access at a young age may drop future adult smoking rates.

"To the degree we wouldn't be involved, it would only be a resource question," McGoldrick said. "We certainly support it from a policy perspective. We're just going to have to see what the landscape looks like in terms of the biggest opportunities for success."

[REPORT: Nearly 4 Million U.S. Kids Still Smoke]

In New York City, one unhappy activist who organizes smokers to push back against tough laws says politicians can expect a black market boom with the new age limit.

"They are not stopping anyone in that age group who wants to smoke," said Audrey Silk, founder of New York City Citizens Lobbying Against Smoker Harassment. "These young adults know very well where to get their cigarettes. The ones who have already been doing that will have more joining them to get their cigarettes from the 'buttleggers,'" a term for smugglers who avoid high city taxes.