MALONE — Public health agencies and organizations in the north country are currently building a regional alliance to advocate for raising the age to buy tobacco products to 21.
Franklin County Public Health Services Director Kathleen Strack met with county legislators on Thursday to discuss the goals of the North Country Tobacco Use Reduction Task Force.
The Task Force is a coalition of 35 community agencies in Clinton, Essex, Franklin, Hamilton, and Washington counties. In addition to the county’s Health Department, other local partners include Citizen Advocates, Franklin County Community Services, the Alice Hyde Medical Center, and St. Regis Mohawk Health Services.
Strack presented an outreach letter from the task force citing studies from the Adirondack Health Institute that smoking is more prevalent among adults in the north country in particular than in all of New York state; 22 percent of north country adults smoke, compared to 15 percent of all New Yorkers.
For Franklin County in particular, the study found that approximately 27 percent of adult residents regularly use tobacco projects.
Smoking and tobacco use has long been seen as addictive and linked to serious illnesses such as lung cancer. The chronic nature of smoking-related illnesses also tends to put a strain on the medical and insurance budgets for both local businesses and municipal governments.
Most smokers, Strack noted, start before they turn 21. As such, the tobacco purchasing age is at the center of the Task Force’s “Clear the Air in the North Country” initiative.
Currently, New York City and eight upstate counties have adopted laws to increase the tobacco purchase age to 21. Other counties, such as St. Lawrence County and Tompkins County, are currently discussing the issue, though not without opposition.
Opponents have called the measure an example of government overreach, likening the move to the previous successful movement to increase the alcohol age to 21. Critics have claimed that increasing the age would also threaten local businesses and drive businesses to more tobacco-friendly areas.
At the meeting on Thursday, Strack said that she is aware of the opposing arguments. The Task Force is moving slowly, taking the time to gather information from north country residents, to gauge support and address public concerns.
Strack added that the measure purely focused on sales.
“No one is going to come into your home and confiscate it from a 19-year-old,” said Strack.
County Legislator Don Dabiew, D-Bombay, said that any tobacco policy should keep the tobacco retail industry on the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation in mind.
The tribe, as a sovereign entity, does not follow state or county law. Dabiew noted that the average price for a pack of cigarettes on the reservation is usually between $10 and $12 –– cheaper than at outlets off the reservation.
However, Strack pointed out that the tribe’s Health Services office is already part of the Task Force and working with other groups on “Clear the Air.”
“The tribe doesn’t want their kids smoking,” said Strack.
Legislator Carl Sherwin, D-Malone, noted that a major obstacle for the task force would be the cultural acceptance of smoking in the North Country.
“It’s really scary, actually,” said Sherwin, noting the study’s findings that many adult smokers in Franklin County were single-parent women.
Sherwin, a former family doctor, said that it was a very familiar story, which began with someone smoking in their late teens and finding their way to an emergency room by their 20s or 30s.
Strack said that the priority for the task force for the moment would be to focus on compiling the research and presenting evidence-based education on smoking.
Legislator Andrea Dumas, R-Malone, suggested that local businesses may also have some helpful input. She mentioned some local merchants who noticed that children would often see cigarettes right up front in some stores and pharmacies; in response, some businesses have opted to move their tobacco supplies to lessen their apparent importance to younger customers.