By Curtis Skinner
NEW YORK (Reuters) - The New York City Council voted to raise the minimum age for buying tobacco to 21, the highest in the country, in hopes of reducing smoking among the city's young adults.
The council voted 35 to 10 on Wednesday to raise the age requirement from 18.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an anti-smoking crusader, was expected to sign the bill, which would become law 180 days later.
Some 19,000 high school students under 18 currently smoke in the city and 80 percent of smokers start before age 21, according to the city's health department. Youth smoking rates have hovered around 8.5 percent since 2007 after having been cut in half from 2001 to 2006.
"We need the next big thing. And this is the next big thing," City Councilman James Gennaro, the sponsor of the bill, told reporters about the bill's intent to further reduce smoking among the city's youth.
Raising the minimum sales age to 21 would reduce smoking among 14 to 17 year olds by two-thirds and cut rates by a little over half for 18 to 20 year olds, the health department said.
Bloomberg, nearing the end of his third and final term, has made public health a focus of his 12 years in office, starting with a ban on smoking in bars and restaurants in 2002. In 2011 the city banned smoking in outdoor venues such as public parks and beaches. Bloomberg has also targeted fatty foods, salt and sugary drinks in New York City restaurants.
Four states - Alabama, Alaska, New Jersey and Utah - and several municipalities across the country have set the minimum age for buying tobacco products at 19.
While New York would be the first major city to have a sales age as high as 21, the Boston suburb of Needham, Massachusetts, actually led the way in 2005. Between 2006 and 2012, smoking among high school students in Needham fell by more than half, New York City officials said.
(Editing by Daniel Trotta and Bob Burgdorfer)