Tobacco 21

Envisioning a Tobacco-Free Future for Onondaga County 

By Deb Mendzef

Effective Jan. 1, 2018, Onondaga County became the 15th municipality in New York state to ban the sale of tobacco-related products to anyone younger than 21 years old. Deb Mendzef, coordinator for the CNY Regional Center for Tobacco Health Systems, located at St. Joseph’s Health Hospital, and the woman behind the local Tobacco 21 workgroup, explains the significance of this community-supported initiative.

We all deserve to live in a community free from tobacco addiction and the risks associated with it. Thanks to the collaborative efforts of the organizations and individuals of the Tobacco 21 workgroup, Onondaga County is one step closer to a tobacco-free future. Together, members of the group worked for more than a year to educate elected officials and the community on a regular basis about the importance of supporting Tobacco 21 legislation, which sought to raise the minimum age for sale of tobacco, e-cigarettes and other tobacco-related products to 21.

The legal age for purchasing tobacco products in Onondaga County had been 19 since 2009, when the Onondaga County legislature voted to increase the age from 18. Nearly a decade later, Onondaga County Executive Joanie Mahoney signed Tobacco 21 legislation into local law on Dec. 26, 2017, raising the minimum age for sale to 21, effective Jan. 1, 2018.

“This decision is ultimately about public health,” Joanie said. “The data is clear and illustrates that when people avoid smoking before they are 21, they are significantly less likely to ever start.”

Smoking is the most preventable cause of death. Nearly half of all adult smokers in Onondaga County are young adults, ages 18 to 24. The annual health care costs attributed to smoking are upwards of $10 billion in New York state.

Kristy Smorol, communications director for the American Heart Association’s Syracuse office and member of the Tobacco 21 workgroup, agrees with the county executive. Kristy said close to onethird of deaths from coronary heart disease are linked to smoking and secondhand smoke, noting that smoking is the primary risk factor for young people. She is confident that as more localities implement measures such as Tobacco 21, these statistics will improve.

Raising the minimum age to 21 does work to reduce the number of young smokers. In 2005, Needham, Mass., experienced a 47 percent drop in the rate of smoking among young people following the implementation of the law that year. Onondaga County Health Commissioner Dr. Indu Gupta anticipates the new law will help prevent tobacco addiction in Onondaga County as well.

“I am very pleased that County Executive Joanie Mahoney signed T21 into law for Onondaga County,” Indu said. “T21 puts Onondaga County in a leadership position with several other counties in New York state to protect the health of our youth.”

She went on to explain that tobacco is the leading preventable cause of premature death in the county, citing recent data showing that 20.3 percent of Onondaga County adults smoke, a figure higher than the state rate of 15.6 percent.

Making change happen

The nationwide success of the Tobacco 21 campaign is due in part to its focus on taking action at the local level, resulting in Central New York’s own Tobacco 21 workgroup. An offshoot of the Tobacco Action Coalition of Onondaga County, the workgroup is a collaboration of nine Onondaga County organizations focused solely on advocating to increase the age of purchase for tobacco sales to 21 in Onondaga County.

Through coordinated outreach to public officials, including Indu, Joanie, County Legislator and Health Committee Chair Danny J. Liedka and several other county legislators, the workgroup made the case for Tobacco 21 heard, and spurred action on the part of elected officials and the community.

A November 2016 GOP survey, inspired by a Tobacco 21 workgroup presentation and spearheaded by Danny, revealed that a majority of community respondents were in favor of raising the age of sale for tobacco products, and agreed that e-cigarettes should be included as a tobacco product in relation to any tobacco control laws.

To further demonstrate support for legislation, the group undertook a community campaign that included petitions and media outreach to bring awareness to the Tobacco 21 initiative. In addition to community residents, the workgroup sought support of decision makers in the business community, collecting signatures on a letter of support from nearly 50 prominent local businesses and organizations.

Together, these efforts helped secure the Onondaga County legislature’s vote in favor of raising the legal age to buy tobacco in the county to 21 in early December, paving the way for the bill to become law.

“Tobacco usage affects everyone in the community. The collaborative nature of our Tobacco 21 workgroup made it possible for us to efficiently and effectively reach and educate multiple stakeholders and to garner support for the legislation,” said Martha Ryan, public health advocate formerly with the American Cancer Society. “The survey, coupled with the group’s efforts to rally business leaders and residents, helped send the message to elected officials that their constituents wanted the kind of legislation that Tobacco 21 offers.”

What’s next

Raising the age of legal purchase of tobacco products to 21 is an important step in curtailing tobacco use and reducing negative health outcomes related to tobacco use, but there’s more to be done. TACO has offered to be a resource for Onondaga County throughout implementation of the new law, and continues to advocate and educate the community.

A significant part of TACO’s work moving forward is data evaluation – specifically youth tobacco usage. The group has the ability to monitor the 18 to 21 age group and adult usage statistics, explained Dr. Leslie Kohman, board chair of the Greater Upstate American Cancer Society. She added that education, coupled with factors like legislation and policy, can help reduce tobacco addiction.

“What’s important going forward is that we use this data to identify and implement evidence-based approaches that will further reduce tobacco use and improve our ability to live healthier lives,” Leslie said. SWM

Learn more about the Tobacco Action Coalition of Onondaga County and its ongoing efforts in Onondaga County by visiting

Get help quitting the use of tobacco products with resources and support from the CNY Regional Center for Tobacco Health Systems at St. Joseph’s Health Hospital. Visit

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