Mayor Ben Walsh proposes law to limit tobacco retailers in Syracuse

Delaware Primary School

Delaware Primary School, left, shares a stretch of South Geddes Street with multiple tobacco retailers, city officials say. Mayor Ben Walsh has proposed legislation aimed at reducing the number.

Syracuse, N.Y. – As Mayor Ben Walsh drives along South Geddes Street on his daily commute to City Hall, he passes a library and two schools. And in that same 11-block stretch, he passes 11 stores that sell tobacco.

“Think about the kids walking to school in either direction, whether it’s Delaware (Elementary) or Fowler (High School). You see that they’re inundated with these shops,’’ Walsh said.

Walsh is proposing a new city law that aims to reduce the number and density of stores that sell smoking or vaping products in Syracuse.

Smoking, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, remains the leading preventable cause of death, and studies have shown that higher concentrations of tobacco retailers are associated with increased rates of smoking.

Walsh’s proposal would require tobacco retailers to get a new city license – in addition to their state license. But unlike state licenses, the number of city licenses would gradually decrease over time, reducing the number of stores.

“It’s not going to change things overnight,” Walsh said. “This is a long-term strategy.”

The Common Council will discuss the proposed law at a committee meeting at 10 a.m. Wednesday. Councilor Pat Hogan, who chairs the economic development committee, said most councilors were open to the idea but would likely have questions about the details.

Here’s how the proposed law would work:

Each year, any store that sells tobacco would have to apply for a license from the city. The non-refundable application fee would be $250.

During the first year, any retailer with a valid state license would qualify for a city license. Essentially, existing stores would be grandfathered in.

As stores are sold or closed, however, new limitations would kick in. The city will only issue one new license for every two stores that close or change hands. And new stores will have to be at least 750 feet away from a school, a park or another tobacco retailer.

Other cities that have adopted similar laws have found that the laws gradually reduce the number and density of tobacco shops. Philadelphia and Santa Clara County, Calif., for example, both reported that the number of tobacco retailers dropped about 10% in the first year after their laws took effect, according to a 2021 study by researchers at Ohio State University.

The town of Salina adopted a similar law last year. Supervisor Nick Paro said town officials will conduct a year-end review of the results soon.

Walsh said smoking is an important public health issue, especially for young people in areas of the city where corner stores proliferate.

“We’re seeing these shops literally open up across the street from each other,’’ Walsh said. “We’ll see two or three corners out of a four-corner intersection occupied by these shops. So it really is an increasing health risk to our neighborhoods.”

Research shows that U.S. tobacco retailers are clustered most heavily in areas with higher proportions of households receiving public assistance, as well as counties with a higher proportion of African American residents, same-sex couples, and rural residents, according to the CDC.

The U.S. Surgeon General and others have found that proximity to tobacco retail outlets and higher retail density is associated with increased smoking, the CDC reports.

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