By Edith Honan
NEW YORK, April 22 (Reuters) - New York City took the first step on Monday in outlawing sales of cigarettes to anyone under age 21, in an effort to reduce smoking among the age group in which most smokers take up the habit.
The bill, which was introduced by the City Council and has the backing of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, would make New York City, which already has the highest cigarette taxes in the nation, the first big city or state to set the smoking age at 21. Currently, individuals must be 18 to buy cigarettes.
Eight in 10 adult smokers in the city started smoking regularly when they were below the age of 21, and most smokers who are under age 18 obtain cigarettes from individuals who are just a few years older than them, city officials said.
While an increase in cigarette taxes contributed to a 15-point drop among youth smokers from 1999 to 2007, the number of high-school-aged smokers has held steady at about 8.5 percent over the last six years.
Cigarette packs sold in New York City currently carry a state tax of $4.35 and a city tax of $1.50 - making it the most expensive city in the nation to be a smoker.
"Too many adult smokers begin this deadly habit before age 21," City Council Speaker Christine Quinn said. "By delaying our city's children and young adults access to lethal tobacco products, we're decreasing the likelihood they ever start smoking, and thus, creating a healthier city."
The bill marks the latest effort in the city's decade-long fight to discourage smoking, which the city's health commissioner, Thomas Farley, said was the most significant cause of preventable death in the city. In 2003, Bloomberg outlawed smoking in bars and restaurants, and smoking has since been banned in other public places, including parks.
Quinn, who is running to become the city's next mayor, made clear that she would continue Bloomberg's aggressive public health agenda - which has led his detractors to dub him the "nanny mayor."
MOST TOBACCO USE STARTS IN ADOLESCENCE
While most of the city's anti-smoking initiatives have originated with Bloomberg, the mayor did not join Quinn in making the announcement on Monday, instead sending Farley to say that the mayor looks forward to signing the bill into law.
Every U.S. state prohibits retailers from selling tobacco products to minors and in most states the smoking age is set at 18. Four states - Alabama, Alaska, New Jersey and Utah - require that a cigarette purchaser be at least 19 years old.
In New York, Nassau and Suffolk counties on Long Island have already boosted their legal age for buying cigarettes and other tobacco products to 19.
Nearly all tobacco use starts in childhood and adolescence, according to the 2012 report by the U.S. Surgeon General, which declared smoking a "pediatric epidemic" both in the United States and globally.
According to the report, 99 percent of all first use of tobacco occurs by age 26. The report also found that if youth and young adults manage to avoid smoking or other tobacco products, very few will begin smoking after that age.
Evidence suggests that once youth start smoking, many find it hard to quit. Of all adult cigarette smokers in the United States who smoke daily, 88 percent started smoking by age 18, according to the report.
Currently, about one out of four seniors in high school - youth aged 17 or 18 - smoke on a regular basis. Among those who continue smoking, half will die 13 years earlier than non-smoking peers.
It was not immediately clear how the tobacco industry would respond to the proposed legislation, which Quinn said she hoped would become a model for the rest of the country.
"Our companies follow the law whatever it is in any jurisdiction," said Jane Seccombe, spokeswoman for Reynolds American Inc, the parent company of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co, American Snuff Co and Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Co. "We believe no minors, however they're classified in those jurisdictions, should be able to access tobacco products."
She declined to comment on any potential sales impact from changes in the minimum age.