Town of Ballston Supervisor Tim Szczepaniak is at the forefront of Saratoga County’s effort to enact a Tobacco 21 law. The law would prohibit the sale of tobacco products to anyone under the age of 21. It would apply to cigarettes, cigars, chewing tobacco, electronic cigarettes, and smoking paraphernalia.
New York City as well as numerous counties throughout the state have adopted similar laws. Several states have adopted statewide Tobacco 21 laws, and others are pursuing similar legislation.
Szczepaniak is not new to the tobacco debate. In 2015, he was contacted by Reality Check, an organization that engages youth as leaders in the movement against tobacco use. He was so impressed that he invited teens from Reality Check to speak at a town board meeting. The teens, including Szczepaniak’s own daughter, advocated for a resolution that would make Ballston’s Jenkins Park tobacco free. The resolution was passed, but that was just the beginning.
“We took it a step farther,” says Szczepaniak. “Six months later, we passed a resolution to prohibit the use of tobacco products at all current and future parks.”
Community members reacted very favorably to the smoking ban. “People were very pleased,” says Szczepaniak. “The only question that did come up—and it is a valid question—is the enforcement piece. Because obviously the police have bigger and better things to deal with.” He says the town has successfully relied on its citizens to respect and abide by the smoking ban.
In June 2017, Szczepaniak invited Reality Check representatives to a Saratoga County Public Health Committee meeting. Students from Schuylerville High School addressed the committee and spoke in support of a Tobacco 21 initiative spearheaded by Saratoga County Public Health Director Catherine Duncan. Representative from Glens Falls Hospital’s Living Tobacco-Free Initiative were also in attendance.
Not all Saratoga County commissioners are in favor of the Tobacco 21 legislation, and Clifton Park’s Phil Barrett has publicly declared his opposition. Barrett believes it would infringe on personal rights and place more responsibilities on the already overburdened Saratoga County Sheriff’s Office.
While Szczepaniak acknowledges Barrett’s concerns as valid, he believes the benefits of the proposed law outweigh the negatives. “I understand that some people don’t think this is government’s place to be, but my answer is for them to look at the true facts.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, if smoking continues at the current rate among youth in this country, 5.6 million of those currently under the age of 18 will die early from a smoking-related illness. The CDC also reports that nearly 9 out of 10 cigarette smokers first tried smoking by age 18.
Although Saratoga County has been ranked by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation as New York’s healthiest county, Szczepaniak says this doesn’t tell the whole story. “Saratoga County has the highest rates of lip, oral, and lung cancer in the entire state,” he says. According to a report published by Saratoga Hospital, Saratoga County has the 14th highest rate of tobacco consumption among New York’s 62 counties.
Szczepaniak says this high rate of tobacco usage costs the county money because it leads to an increase in tobacco related diseases, health issues, and Medicaid costs. He believes the Tobacco 21 law could translate to significant cost savings. The CDC has estimated the cost of smoking-related illnesses to be more than $300 billion a year in the United States.
Supervisor Barrett’s concerns regarding enforcement of the proposed law have been discussed with Sheriff Michael Zurlo. Szczepaniak says the new law would not overburden the sheriff’s department if Tobacco 21 stings were performed in conjunction with underage drinking stings that already take place.
Skeptics say Tobacco 21 laws will do nothing to curb teen smoking, but the statistics tell a different story. According to a 2015 report issued by the Institute of Medicine, enacting a nationwide Tobacco 21 policy would result in a 25% drop in youth smoking initiation and a 12% drop in overall smoking rates.
Some local business owners have expressed concern that the law would lead to a loss in revenue. Szczepaniak does not believe these losses would be significant. He points to a study published by the American Journal of Public Health. It states that raising the age for tobacco sales would reduce tobacco sales by just 2%.
Although business owners are concerned, Szczepaniak says that the majority of residents he has spoken with are in favor of the law. The CDC reports that 3 out of every 4 adult Americans–including 7 out of 10 cigarette smokers– are in favor of raising the age for tobacco purchases to 21. The U.S. Military has also voiced support of the law. “They want healthy soldiers,” says Szczepaniak.
A public hearing on the proposed Tobacco 21 law will take place on Oct. 11 at 4:40 p.m. at the county offices in Ballston Spa. Although Szczepaniak is hoping the law will pass, he says he won’t give up on if it doesn’t.
“To me it’s a no-brainer vote,” he says. “It really is. I’ll be pretty sad if it doesn’t pass, but I’m still going to be persistent.”