Lawmakers Target Underage Smokers
The Suffolk legislature yesterday passed a bill that would allow police to seize cigarettes from underage smokers, even though anti-smoking groups and the county's health commissioner opposed the measure.
The measure, a watered-down version of an earlier proposal that included fines or community service, passed on a 10-7 vote with Legis. Fred Towle (R-Shirley) abstaining in a highly charged debate.
"The initiative is to discourage kids from smoking," said Ginny Fields (D-Oakdale), the bill's sponsor. "There's a glamour to smoking and being seen by your friends doing it. If you have to hide to smoke, it might not seem so cool." Noting the widespread opposition from anti-smoking groups, one opponent, Legis. Allan Binder (R-Huntington) said, "When people all around you are telling you you're drunk, I think it's a good idea to listen to what they are saying." Fields' original proposal called for fines of $25 or attendance in a smoking prevention program as well as eight hours of community service. She dropped the requirement after anti-smoking groups, including the American Cancer Society and the American Lung Association, attacked the proposal. "There are no penalties," Fields emphasized.
In a last-ditch pitch to stop its passage, Richard Couch, advocacy director of the Long Island chapter of the American Cancer Society, criticized the measure as "reactive." The resolution, said Couch, "lets them become an addict then offers government intervention using police." He said such an approach is favored by the tobacco industry to "blur the focus of burden away from themselves and onto youths." Although she did not appear yesterday, Suffolk County Health Commissioner Clare Bradley has also opposed the measure.
Under the bill, the county police and other local departments as well as the sheriff and parks police would be empowered to seize cigarettes and other tobacco products from youths under 18 caught smoking. The youngsters could reclaim their cigarettes by appearing at the health department for a due-process hearing within two days. If clear evidence is shown that the law has been violated, the tobacco products will be destroyed and parents will be notified.
Legis. Maxine Postal (D-Amityville) said the proposal would put police in a "ludicrous and laughable position" because most underage youngsters do not have identification cards showing their age and are likely to lie about their names and addresses. "Is that the kind of relationship we want between our youth and police?" she asked.
However, several lawmakers said that enforcement is needed as part of a multipronged approach to encourage youngsters to keep from smoking. "This is worth a try," said Legis. Michael D'Andre (R-St. James). "If it stops even one of our children from smoking, it's worth the effort." Aides to County Executive Robert Gaffney said their office is still reviewing the legislation and will hold a hearing on the measure Sept. 25 before deciding whether to veto the bill or sign it into law. Fields said she plans to personally meet with Gaffney today to lobby for the proposal. Gaffney has 30 days to make a decision.
In other action, the legislature approved a local measure that would require bicycle riders from age 14 to 17 as well as in-line skaters up to age 17 to wear helmets. Currently, the state law requires helmets only for bikers up to age 13 and has no rules for skaters. The legislature also enacted a local bill to regulate tow trucks that take cars out of local shopping center parking lots. The measure would require the stores to post signs about their policy and authorize the removal of each vehicle, said Legis. Angie Carpenter (R-West Islip), the sponsor.