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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As the city government increased taxes on tobacco, Silk said, "a huge enterprise sprung up" and now many smokers have learned through word of mouth of illicit, less expensive cigarette dealers.

Silk, a former New York City cop, defiantly smokes cigarettes in city parks – deliberately violating Mayor Bloomberg's ban by doing so – and her group won a rare victory Oct. 11 when a judge ruled against a statewide ban on smoking in parks.

"This one has no room for a lawsuit, unfortunately," she concedes.

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It's unclear how city policy might change under Bloomberg's successor, who will be selected in November. Neither Democrat Bill de Blasio nor Republican Joe Lhota have gone out of their way to advertise a position on the new age restriction.

"The lines have become blurred party wise because you can't depend on any one party to defend our civil liberties," Silk said. "My question to them is: Will you decline to accept the votes of this age group if they're not smart enough [to decide whether or not to smoke]?"

Silk says it's possible the age restriction will one day be reversed, but it'll be an uphill climb.

"Prohibition [of alcohol] was reversed," she said. "It took 13 years for that, so is it possible the age will be reduced one day? Yeah, it's possible." But, in the meantime, she admits "New York is a trendsetter" and will likely inspire young adult bans elsewhere.

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