Op-Ed: Legislator Pushing to Raise Smoking Age

The Suffolk County Legislature since it was established 50 years ago has been a governmental trailblazer enacting first-in-the nation laws—then replicated through the U.S. These have including a ban on handheld use of cellphones while driving and sale of the drug ephedra, creation of a bottle-deposit system and many measures barring smoking in public places.

And now, a new member of the Suffolk Legislature has introduced what would be the first-in-the-nation law to, as its title declares, “Increase the Legal Smoking Age To 25 in Suffolk County.” It would do that by banning the sale of cigarettes and other tobacco products to persons under 25 years old.

“I’m trying to protect the future of the kids who are living in Suffolk,” says Legislator Sam Gonzalez. “I don’t want to see them suffer later on from lung cancer, throat cancer and other cancers.”

If Suffolk County passes his measure, “I’ve spoken to legislators in Nassau County, and if we pass it, in a matter of time, Nassau would, too,” and then there would be the possibility of action by New York State, he says.    If a person doesn’t smoke before he or she is 25, says Mr. Gonzalez, it’s highly likely that he or she will never smoke.

Meanwhile, says Mr. Gonzalez, “I’ve been getting calls from every major tobacco company.” They don’t like his legislation.

But Mr. Gonzales is used to uphill fights.

As his legislative biography states: “Sam has spent his career as a labor advocate fighting for workers across New York State. He started his career in labor as a shop steward with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, and was promoted to lead organizer. Recognized for his ability to inspire and lead, he was recruited by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers in 2012.” Before becoming a Suffolk legislator, he was president of IBEW Local 1430.  As a union president, he spearheaded “many of the union’s organizing drives across the state. With more than 36 years of experience in the labor movement, Sam has proven to be an exceptional leader, dedicated to charting a new course for the labor movement.”

He was elected a legislator last year in a special election and then the general election to succeed Monica R. Martinez who had won a seat representing south-central Suffolk County in the New York State Senate. They both live in Brentwood.

Mr. Gonzalez has a second measure on smoking pending before the legislature. “It just needs one more vote to pass,” he told me. This bill would prohibit smoking in multiple-dwelling buildings.

In 2015, the Suffolk Legislature, among its many bills restricting smoking, barred it in common areas of multiple-dwelling buildings and in close proximity to their entrances. Then, in 2016, it banned smoking within 50 feet of such a building.

But also needed is halting smoking in apartments in multiple-dwelling buildings, says Mr. Gonzalez. The smoke from an apartment, this bill says, can travel “through lighting fixtures, cracks in walls, around plumbing, under doors, and in shared heating and ventilation.” Says Mr. Gonzales: “It can get into the apartment next door where an elderly person might be using an oxygen tank; it could get to children.’

The bill declares that “individuals in Suffolk County should have the right to live in their own homes without breathing in second-hand smoke from sources they cannot control.”

Mr. Gonzalez once was a smoker himself—“a two-pack-a-day Newport smoker”—from the time he was 14 until he was 31 and “I first found out that I was going to be a father.” Now 59, he has not had a cigarette since.

“I ran for public office because I care about our community. I want to see our youth succeed in life—and be healthy. I want a healthy county, a healthy Long Island,” he says.

And, if his measure increasing the legal smoking age in Suffolk County to 25, introduced last month, “doesn’t get through,” Mr. Gonzalez vows: “I will be bringing it up every year.”

There is Suffolk Legislature history in increasing the smoking age in the county. In 2014 the legislature increased it from 19 to 21.

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