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Times-Union: NY lawmakers voice vaping, single-payer concerns

By Bethany Bump, February 5

ALBANY — New York’s top health officials told lawmakers Tuesday they are unsure how an unexpected $2.3 billion state budget shortfall next year might impact their budgets.

At a budget hearing on health care spending, state Health Commissioner Howard Zucker and Medicaid Director Donna Frescatore said they didn’t have any more information about the larger than expected shortfall that was announced by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli on Monday.

“That’s shocking to me,” said Sen. Brad Hoylman, D-Manhattan. “That could mean a massive recalibration of your budget.”

In January, Cuomo proposed a state budget that would include $19.6 billion in spending on health care, a 3.6 percent increase over the current fiscal year. But Monday’s announcement of the budget shortfall cast doubt on whether that increase is realistic.

With few answers on that front, lawmakers pressed state health officials on other issues, including the state’s plan to control the rise of e-cigarette use and vaping among youth, and the governor’s apparent reluctance to embrace universal single-payer health care.

Zucker said the state has seen a dramatic rise in the number of high schoolers who use e-cigarettes, from 10 percent in 2015 to 30 percent just two years later. He blamed the products, the most popular of which resembles a USB flash drive, for a recent uptick in tobacco use among high schoolers — the first such uptick since the state began tracking use in 2000.

“Now, it’s small, but it’s up,” Zucker said of the rise in tobacco use. “And we feel this is attributable to the e-cigarette use.”

The governor’s proposed budget attempts to curb these increases by imposing a 20 percent tax on vapor products, and clarifying that the Department of Health has authority to ban flavored products. The legislation would also ban stores from displaying products in stores, and crack down on tobacco use more broadly by raising the age to buy cigarettes from 18 to 21.

Assemblyman Andrew Raia, R-Long Island, worried whether a ban on flavors would ultimately harm adults like himself, who have used flavored vaping products to quit smoking combustible cigarettes.

“Anyone who’s trying to quit smoking, the last thing they want to consume is a tobacco-flavored vaping product,” Raia said. “So quite honestly, those flavors are quite important in getting people off cigarettes.”

Additionally, he said, a flavor ban could open the door to discriminatory policing in the same way marijuana prohibition did.

“You are basically going to give a police officer the right to search somebody’s car if they smell any vape products,” he said.

Sen. Diane Savino, D-Staten Island, who sponsored a statewide “Tobacco 21” bill, said she has grown increasingly concerned about enforcement. Banning the products is not enough, she said, noting that her 17-year-old nephew is able to purchase Juul e-cigarettes from local bodegas and 7-Elevens.

“They are blatantly violating the law by selling to young people,” she said.

Some lawmakers expressed dismay Tuesday that the Cuomo administration appears in no rush to implement a single-payer health plan in the state, an issue that has gained steady public support over the years and that has passed the state Assembly several years running.

The executive budget did propose creating a commission that would look at how to achieve universal health care access in New York. It charges the departments of Health and Financial Services with appointing experts to the commission, which would be tasked with presenting a plan to the governor by Dec. 1.

But Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, a longtime sponsor of a single-payer bill, and Sen. Gustavo Rivera — both Democrats — implied Tuesday that they have little faith that even a commission process would make it into the final budget.

“It seems like it’s something you want to put forward so you can say you’re doing something about it,” Rivera told Zucker, punctuating the comment with a thumbs-down.

Zucker, however, defended the idea of a commission process.

“We need to get as much information as possible,” he said. “There are many different moving parts to this issue, and I just think that in order to do this the right way we should have a commission look at this and get as much feedback as we can.”

The budget hearing was the eighth of 13 planned for this legislative session. The next hearing is Wednesday on K-12 education