Last Wednesday, the Chautauqua County Legislature voted to increase the age to buy tobacco products in its county from 18 to 21, effective Oct. 1.

Chautauqua County joins Suffolk County as the second county in New York to adopt the Tobacco 21 initiative. One reason some county lawmakers gave for supporting the local law was the high percentage of adult smokers — about one in four.

What about Cattaraugus County, where the rate of smokers is the highest in Western New York at 28.4 percent; to 26.8 percent in Allegany County; and 24.7 percent in Chautauqua County? The state rate of adult smokers is 16.6 percent. Would increasing the age to buy cigarettes cut down on smoking?

Cattaraugus County Public Health Director Dr. Kevin Watkins applauded the Chautauqua County local law to curb teen smoking.

“I thought it was a great move on the part of the legislators to move forward on the initiative to reduce the number of youths that start the bad habit of tobacco smoking,” Watkins said.

“The number of smokers is coming down statewide, partly because of the increases in excise taxes,” which have pushed the cost of a pack of cigarettes toward the $10 mark, Watkins said. In this area, inexpensive cigarettes are readily available at Native American retail tobacco outlets on the Allegany and Cattaraugus Territories for as little as $2 a pack.

“It’s possible we could look into something like that (increasing the age) in Cattaraugus County,” Watkins said. “Our 28.4 percent smoking rate far exceeds the state average. We definitely need other initiatives to reduce the smoking rate here.”

Some of the effects of the county’s high smoking rate are reflected in the county’s health ranking in comparison to other counties. The county’s ranking dropped seven points from 53 to 60 out of 62 counties. Smoking causes heart disease, high blood pressure, cancer and premature death, health experts have contended.

“I think we would be on the right side of history on this issue,” Watkins said of a local law to increase the age to buy cigarettes.

The state’s steep increases in state excise taxes on cigarettes succeeded in driving up prices so high that people could not afford to smoke, Watkins said. “We have not been able to benefit from the high excise taxes” because of the proximity of cheap cigarettes in Salamanca,” he said.

Watkins is not sure if Native American tobacco retailers would have to follow a local law increasing the age to buy cigarettes and other tobacco products since county health law does not extend to the Seneca territories.

He plans to raise the issue of a local law to increase the age to be able to purchase tobacco products in the county with members of the Board of Health at their next meeting Wednesday at Good Times of Olean.

Cattaraugus County Legislator James J. Snyder, R-Olean, who is the legislative representative on the Board of Health, said Friday, “If I had my druthers, I’d eliminate smoking for all ages.”

However, he said, “I think people who are 18 are old enough to make their own decisions on smoking. If a kid is old enough to go to Afghanistan and Iraq, they are old enough to smoke. I think 18 is fine. I don’t think 21 would make much of a difference.”

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