A new proposal would require New York City retailers to keep tobacco products out of sight under a first-in-the-nation proposal aimed at reducing the youth smoking rate, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said Monday.
The legislation would require stores to keep tobacco products in cabinets, drawers, under the counter, behind a curtain or in other concealed spots. They could only be visible during restocking or when an adult is making a purchase.
Bloomberg said similar prohibitions on displays have been enacted in other countries, including Iceland, Canada, England and Ireland.
"Such displays suggest that smoking is a normal activity," Bloomberg said. "And they invite young people to experiment with tobacco."
Stores devoted primarily to the sale of tobacco products would be exempt from the display ban.
The mayor's office said retail stores could still advertise tobacco products under the legislation.
"We have made tremendous strides in combatting smoking in New York City but this leading killer still threatens the health of our children," said Dr. Thomas A. Farley, the health commissioner.
Farley said the city's comprehensive anti-smoking program cut adult smoking rates by nearly a third - from 21.5 percent in 2002 to 14.8 percent in 2011 - but the youth rate has remained flat, at 8.5 percent, since 2007.
Smoking remains the leading preventable cause of death among New Yorkers, Farley said.
An industry group said the proposal was too much.
"It's an over-the-top attempt to control the sale of a legal product," said Andy Kerstein, president of the National Association of Tobacco Outlets, a trade group that represents about 20,000 tobacco stores, convenience stores and other stores that sell tobacco. "There has to be a commonsense approach to it that isn't designed to basically kill the industry. ... As Bloomberg has shown you, it is not going to stop with tobacco. What's the next thing he's going to do, size portions on steaks?"
The nation's largest tobacco company also said Bloomberg was overreaching.
"To the extent that this proposed law would ban the display of products to adult tobacco consumers, we believe it goes too far," said David Sutton, a spokesman for Richmond, Va.-based Altria Group Inc., parent company of Philip Morris USA, which makes the top-selling Marlboro brand. Sutton added that the company supported federal legislation that in 2009 gave the Food and Drug Administration the power to regulate tobacco products, which includes various retail restrictions.
The tobacco proposal is just the latest public health measure Bloomberg has backed, including pressuring restaurants to use less salt, adding calorie counts to menus and banning some large sizes of sugary drinks. A judge blocked the drinks ban earlier this month but the city is appealing.
"People always say, `Oh, you're doing these health things to raise money,"' Bloomberg said. "No, that is not the reason. We're doing these health things to save lives."
The proposal to require cigarettes to be hidden was met with scorn by Jay Kim, who owns a deli on 34th Street where packs of cigarettes can be seen behind the counter, along with numerous signs warning of the dangers of smoking and prohibiting sales to minors.
He said it was just the city's way of finding another regulation for business owners to have to comply with and get fined for if they didn't.
"I know the city wants to collect money," he said.
The legislation, to be introduced in the City Council on Wednesday, is comprised of two separate bills that Farley called "logical, important next steps to further protect our teens from tobacco."
The second bill, called the "Sensible Tobacco Enforcement" bill, strengthens enforcement of discounted and smuggled cigarettes. It would prohibit the sale of discounted tobacco products, impose packaging requirements on cheap cigars and create a price floor for cigarette packs and small cigars. The city would have the authority to seal premises where there are repeat violations.
The bill would also increase penalties for retailers who evade tobacco taxes or sell tobacco without a license.
Jennifer Bailey, smoking as she waited for a bus on 34th Street, was no fan of the proposed tobacco restrictions or Bloomberg's other public health initiatives.
"It's like New York has become a mini-Russia, a dictatorship," she said.