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Lighting A Firey Debate On The Smoking Age 

Centers for Disease Control (CDC) representatives said on CNN Friday that raising the minimum age to purchase cigarettes and tobacco products is one way to prevent young people from picking up the habit. And for Suffolk Legislator William Spencer (D-Centerport), whose legislation to do just that goes up for a public hearing Feb. 11, it couldn’t come at a better time.

The comments, Spencer said, follow the Jan. 11 release of the Surgeon General’s Report on Smoking, the 32nd such report since 1964.

In the report, federal officials state that smoking is the leading preventable cause of death in the United States, resulting in 443,000 deaths a year. The study also said a new host of illnesses and ailments are caused by smoking, including: liver and colorectal cancer, diabetes, erectile dysfunction, rheumatoid arthritis, macular degeneration, ectopic pregnancies and impaired immune function. Secondhand smoke is now cited as a factor that can increase the risk of stroke by up to 30 percent in nonsmokers, according to the report.

“[The study provides] strong, statistical proof that smoking worsens these conditions and are a major economic burden on society,” Spencer said.

Spencer is gearing up for a legislative battle that is expected to start Feb. 11 with the first public hearing that would raise the minimum age to buy tobacco products in Suffolk County to 21, matching recent legislation adopted in New York City.

Spencer said the 21-and-over bill is based on scientific data that indicates that as a young person’s brain develops, critical portions that trigger addiction become more mature and less prone to react to nicotine and other addictive substances.

However, retailers have pushed back against the proposal, arguing it would put a drain on small business owners while doing little good to prevent teens from picking up the deadly habit.

Aside from pushback from gasoline retailers groups and convenience store trade organizations concerned about losses in sales and migration of customers to Nassau County, Spencer said the “support has been really, really strong.”

Legislator Lou D’Amaro (D-N. Babylon) said Friday that he hadn’t read the bill yet and was still undecided.

“It’s a different consideration than when you’re trying to regulate the conduct of minors,” he said. “You have to think long and hard when you can regulate adult behavior. I haven’t really decided whether or not if it’s appropriate.”

D’Amaro said his decision would be based on two factors: whether it’s appropriate to regulate tobacco use by adults, and if it is, “the impact of that limitation when you balance it against limiting their rights.” The hearing process, he said, will be “very, very helpful” to that end.

Spencer said he is preparing for a battle to make the case, and he said he’s willing to be patient, noting that it took nearly a decade for New York City’s 21-and-over tobacco law to pass the city council.

“I’ll have speakers, letters and studies [at the hearing] to make sure my colleagues have all the information they need to make the right decision,” Spencer said.

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