Exercising her public health pulpit like the man she hopes to succeed, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn has announced pending legislation to raise the age limit for buying tobacco from 18 to 21.

Around 20,000 public high school students in New York City currently smoke cigarettes. According to the Surgeon General, 88% of adult smokers started the habit before age 18, and 90% of the people who purchase cigarettes for minors are between the ages of 18 and 20.

Quinn was joined in her announcement with Department of Health Commissioner Thomas Farley, councilmember James Gennaro, and other public health policy experts. “By raising the legal purchase age to 21, we will prevent a generation of New Yorkers from becoming addicted to smoking and ultimately save thousands of lives," Farley said.

Needham, Massachusetts has raised the tobacco purchasing age to 21, and Nassau and Suffolk Counties both require buyers to be 19.

Notably, the law will not include the purchase of electronic cigarettes, which contain nicotine but have yet to exhibit the lethality of combustable cigarettes. A source familiar with the text of the legislation said that e-cigs were omitted because they do not contain tobacco, and because the FDA has yet to issue any regulation of their use.

A spokesman for Altria, which owns Philip Morris, one of the largest tobacco companies in the world, declined to comment, writing in an email that the company has yet to review the legislation. A spokesman for Reynolds American, the country's second-largest tobacco company, has yet to respond to a request for comment.

But The LoraxAudrey Silk, who speaks for the Smokers in her capacity as head of Citizens Lobbying Against Smoker Harassment, calls the statistics cited in Quinn's release "questionable…disputable…none of it relevant in this debate." Silk continues:

The rationale behind raising the age to 21 has absolutely no legitimate basis. It’s government paternalism at its worst.  Those having the legal power to redefine adulthood will do so if that’s what it takes to impose their will on others. The unique intolerance for anyone smoking is the anti-smokers’ excuse to reduce adults to the status of children.

Those aged 18 and above are not children.  Cigarettes are legal.  Responsibility, not “risk” is the issue at hand. At 18 one is deemed adult enough to make responsible choices -to marry, to serve in the military (an immediate risk to health these days), and to vote for the very people who think they’re not smart enough to make an informed decision.  Commit a crime at sixteen and you’re charged as an adult!  Why?  Apparently that is already an age at which government believes they should know better.

When this was first proposed (and subsequently dropped) in October 2006 by Councilman James Gennaro he claimed risk trumps all. There is no doubt that is still the thinking. But life is full of risks. If risk is the measure then at what age are we safe from the politicians’ tyranny?

For the record, my organization is not in the business of encouraging anyone to smoke and our position is that minors shouldn’t smoke.  There is a law already on the books that covers this.  Sales to minors are illegal.  Enforce it and leave the adults alone.

The delicious tubes of leaves sprayed with tobacco juice and butane have taken a beating recently: both Mayor Bloomberg and President Obama want to raise taxes on tobacco, and there is currently legislation pending to remove cigarettes out of public view in the stores where they are sold.