OLEAN — Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposal to raise the age to purchase tobacco products to age 21 drew praise Wednesday from Cattaraugus County Public Health Director Dr. Kevin Watkins.

The Cattaraugus County Legislature approved a similar law banning the purchase of tobacco products by persons under age 21 more than two years ago. The county Board of Health pushed to raise the age locally to buy cigarettes and other tobacco products including chewing tobacco and e-cigarettes.

“We approved our law outlawing the sale of tobacco products to persons under age 21 in November 2016,” Watkins said. “This has been held up in the State Legislature for many years. It looks like they are ready to move on it. It’s well overdue.”

Watkins said a large number of counties already have locals laws on the books to ban tobacco sales to those under age 21.

“Over half the state already has this type of regulation, including New York City,” he said. “It’s about time the state is going to be uniformly enforcing this throughout the state.”

A bid by supporters of increasing the age to purchase tobacco products failed in Allegany County. Chautauqua County enacted a local law increasing the age to purchase tobacco before Cattaraugus County.

Watkins said health officials continue to encourage smokers to quit, but preventing young people from obtaining cigarettes until they are older and more mature may save even more lives. It will cut the rate of premature deaths.

“We are really in favor of this bill and commend the governor for moving forward on this legislation,” Watkins said. It will make uniform the enforcement of the state’s Clean Indoor Air Act, he added.

The Health Department’s tobacco compliance checks are undertaken a couple of times a year where a minor goes to retail outlets and asks to buy cigarettes.

Fines can amount to hundreds of dollars and repeat violations can result in the loss of not only a tobacco sales license, but state lottery sales as well.

“We are going to continue to be vigilant on tobacco sales to minors,” Watkins said. “The number of violations are down, but we still get one or two a year.”

Watkins said the number of people taking the Health Department’s tobacco sales training program has grown as retailers seek to train employees not to sell tobacco products to minors.

“We’re starting to make some inroads,” Watkins said. There are instances where smokers under age 21 drive to the Seneca territory where retailers are not bound by the county’s local law.

Seneca retailers are a barrier we face, he said. While the Seneca Nation is a sovereign territory, Watkins is hoping the Seneca Nation will begin not selling to those under age 21 once the state law takes effect.

“They don’t have to comply,” he said. “I’m hoping this will encourage them to finally come on board.”

Low-cost cigarettes available on the Seneca territory, which are not taxed, circumvent state taxes designed to make it too expensive to smoke. A pack of cigarettes can cost less than $2 on the Allegany and Cattaraugus territories.

Cattaraugus County Legislature Minority Leader Susan Labuhn, D-Salamanca, a representative to the county Board of Health, also applauded the governor’s proposal to raise the age to 21 to buy tobacco products.

“We never got any pushback when we raised the age to buy tobacco products,” Labuhn said. “You don’t see as many young people smoking anymore.”

Labuhn acknowledged the availability of tax-free cigarettes on the Allegany Territory, but said Seneca retailers are trying to restrict sales to minors as well.

“It’s one of the better health decision we (legislators) have made,” she said. “We get a better than 90 percent positive feedback.”

Labuhn said, It’s one way be can be more preventive. Hopefully we will see a decline in smoking — e-cigarettes too.”

(Contact reporter Rick Miller at rmiller@oleantimesherald.com. Follow him on Twitter, @RMillerOTH)