After years of striving to set a national agenda for curbing smoking, New York City may set a new bar by becoming the most populous place in America to raise the minimum age for buying cigarettes to 21.
A new proposal would increase the threshold from 18, a federal minimum that is the standard in many places. Four states and some communities have raised the age to 19, and at least two towns have agreed to raise it to 21.
But a change in New York would put the issue in a big-city spotlight, as the city did by helping to impose the highest cigarette taxes in the country, barring smoking at parks and on beaches and conducting sometimes graphic advertising campaigns about the hazards of smoking. Another proposal, floated last month, would keep cigarettes out of sight in stores.
City officials and public health advocates have praised the city's aggressive stance on smoking as helping people live better, while smokers and cigarette sellers have at least initially complained that various restrictions were nannyish and bad for business — a debate that may well be reprised over the age limit.
The measure aims to stop young people from developing a habit that remains the leading preventable cause of death, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn said as she announced the plan Monday. Eighty percent of the city's adult smokers started lighting up before they were 21, officials say.
"Our responsibility today is to do everything we can to reduce," the number of young people who start smoking, Quinn said.
But a spokesman for the National Association of Convenience Stores suggested the measure would simply drive younger smokers to neighboring communities or corner-store cigarette sellers instead of city stores. Smoker Audrey Silk said people considered old enough to vote and serve in the military should be allowed to decide whether to use cigarettes.
"Intolerance for anyone smoking is the anti-smokers' excuse to reduce adults to the status of children," said Silk, who founded a group that has sued the city over previous tobacco restrictions.
Advocates for the measure say the parallel isn't voting but drinking. They cite laws against selling alcohol to anyone under 21.
With support in the City Council and the backing of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the measure has the political ingredients to pass. A hearing is set for May 2.
Smoking has become less prevalent overall in New York City over the last decade but has plateaued at 8.5 percent among the city's public high school students since 2007. An estimated 20,000 of them smoke today.
It's already illegal for many of them to buy cigarettes, but raising the minimum age would also bar slightly older friends from buying smokes for them.
The age limit is already 21 in Needham, Mass., and health officials have agreed to the same change but not yet implemented it in another Boston suburb, Canton. A similar proposal is on hold in the Texas Legislature.
City officials cited statistical modeling, published in the journal Health Policy, that estimated that raising the tobacco purchase age to 21 nationally could cut the smoking rate by two-thirds among 14-to-17-year-olds and by half among 18-to-20-year-olds over 50 years. Texas budget officials projected a one-third reduction in tobacco product use by 18-to-20-year-olds.
The nation's largest cigarette maker, Altria Group Inc., had no immediate comment, spokesman David Sutton said. He has previously noted that the Richmond, Va.-based company, which produces the top-selling Marlboro brand, supported federal legislation that in 2009 gave the Food and Drug Administration the power to regulate tobacco products, which includes various retail restrictions.