ELIZABETHTOWN — A vote to raise the age to buy tobacco products in Essex County got snuffed out Tuesday in a close tally.
"If one other person who was absent had been there, it would have gone through," said Essex Town Supervisor Ronald Jackson, who supported the measure.
The proposed law that went before the Essex County Board of Supervisors would have made it illegal for anyone younger than 21 to buy cigarettes and other tobacco products.
Now, the minimum legal sale age, as it is in most of New York state, is 18.
Had the measure passed, the county would have joined 10 others that have hiked up their sale age to 21; in Nassau County, it's 19, and it's 21 in New York City, according to the State Health Department.
There's been a push on by anti-smoking organizations to see individual counties raise the age, bolstered by studies that show those who take up smoking as teens are far more likely to become addicted.
Surveys have shown more than 90 percent of smokers began tobacco use before they turned 21.
"The biggest thing for me is I'm an EMT," Jackson said after Tuesday's vote. "On a regular basis, we carry people with COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) and heart disease and other things caused by smoking (to hospitals).
"It's not a good way to check out. And it costs Medicare and other insurances a lot to keep people alive (with tobacco-related illnesses)."
Essex County was the first in the region to take the issue to a vote.
The weighted roll-call tally was 1,359 in favor and 1,264 against. At least 1,461 votes were needed to pass the proposal.
"Yes" votes came from town supervisors Gerald Morrow (D-Chesterfield), Jackson (R-Essex), Joe Pete Wilson (D-Keene), James Monty (R-Lewis), Robert Politi (R-North Elba), and Joseph Giordano (R-Ticonderoga).
Nine supervisors voted against the measure: Noel Merrihew (R-Elizabethtown), Archie Depo (D-Jay), Steve McNally (D-Minerva), Thomas Scozzafava (R-Moriah), Ronald Moore (R-North Hudson), Michael Marnell (R-Schroon), Dean Montroy (R-St. Armand), Michael Tyler (R-Westport) and Shaun Gillilland (R-Willsboro).
Absent were Charles Harrington (R-Crown Point), Robin DeLoria (D-Newcomb) and Randy Preston (I-Wilmington). Their votes automatically counted as "against" with a tally of 298
McNally didn't vote against the measure because he opposes it in principle.
"But this law would not be enforceable by law enforcement," he said. "There's no teeth in it."
Had the county upped the age to purchase tobacco products, its health department would have been given charge of enforcement, he said, with violators appearing before a hearing officer from that agency.
Were the state to pass such a law, though, he said, it would be enforced like any other — through the court system.
"I don't believe this is an Essex County issue — this should be a state issue."
Politi agrees with that.
"But the state isn't going to do it," he said Tuesday.
Especially this year, Jackson noted, "when all the senators and assembly members are running for re-election — when that happens, nothing controversial gets passed."
Jackson would be happy to see cigarettes and other forms of tobacco banned altogether in the United States, but that won't happen either, he said.
"There's too much money involved."
SUPPORT FOR MERCHANTS
In Clinton County, the town and city of Plattsburgh each passed resolutions encouraging the county to raise the age there; the County Legislature has not taken up the torch.
Statewide, the New York State Association of Convenience Stores has been vocal in opposition.
"Unfortunately, it won't do any good," Director James Calvin said earlier of upping the legal age.
Kids always find ways of getting cigarettes, he noted.
McNally's "no" vote also came out of support for the two grocery stores in his town.
If Essex County had hiked the age, young people 18, 19 and 20 could easily buy their cigarettes in nearby Warren County, he said, along with milk, bread and other items they would normally buy at home.
"I know it's hard on stores," Jackson said.
And he understands the argument that if 18 is considered the age of adulthood — when people can join the military and die for their country — they should be considered old enough to smoke if they so choose.
"But to me, the health issue trumps that," he said.
Politi believes the Board of Supervisors may take up the issue again in the future.
And he would again be strongly in favor of passing it.
"I believe cigarettes and nicotine can lead to more problematic addictions," he said. "My personal feeling is if you can save one person — or kid — from smoking and becoming addicted to nicotine, that's a good thing."
McNally completely understands where Politi is coming from.
But, he said, "I think we can do better than this."
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The minimum legal sale age (MLSA) for tobacco products and electronic cigarettes in New York City and Albany, Cattaragus, Chautauqua, Cortland, Onondaga, Orange, Schenectady, Suffolk, Sullivan and Tompkins counties is 21. The minimum legal sale age in Nassau County is 19.