Former Albany County Legislator Tim Nichols: Politics & Tobacco

by Tom Ellis


ALBANY, NY: Carol Waterman introduced former county legislator Timothy Nichols at the January 20 SPB dinner saying Tim sponsored a bill vetoed by Albany County Executive Dan McCoy that would have blocked pharmacies in Albany County from selling tobacco products. 

Tim, who was also Chairman of the legislature’s health committee, and lost a bid for a fifth term in November, said he might have won had he “been a little more savvy” but the defeat opens new possibilities for him.

Tim said he has been an “anti-tobacco crusader” since he was a child when he often walked into smoke-filled banks.  As a child at school, after being shown photos of a smoker’s lungs along side those of a non-smoker, he destroyed his mom’s cigarettes, explained why, and was not punished.  He said his mom quit smoking after her physician told her, “It has been good knowing you” because your life will be shortened due to your smoking.  His mom died of emphysema about 15 years ago.

Shifting focus he said House Speaker Newt Gingrich discontinued tobacco hearings.  In New York, the tobacco lobby routinely kills off anti-tobacco legislation.  A national law suit, he said, eventually resulted in a $100 billion settlement that New York still collects revenues from.  Millions of internal tobacco industry documents, he said, show an industry “gone wild”  tampering with nicotine levels to addict people and faking health studies.

Tim said the Price Chopper Golub family has been involved with the tobacco lobby for years and “you have to move a mountain to get even a tiny tobacco control measure enacted.” 

The tobacco industry did not mind if kids stole cigarettes from vending machine because the kids would get addicted and become lifetime customers.  He said the tobacco lawsuit settlement has funded anti-tobacco initiatives including the Clean Indoor Air Act.  Erie and Westchester counties, he said, are in the forefront of enacting local laws, creating pressure for state laws.

Tim said that when his proposed legislation to ban the sale of tobacco products in Albany County narrowly passed the county legislature, Mr. McCoy vetoed it and did not attend the public hearing on the bill he had scheduled.  Tim later learned McCoy had received $10,000 from tobacco industry fronts and held a private meeting with those opposed to the law,

He said the county Board of Health looked at the issue of tobacco addiction and recommended raising the purchase age from 18 to 21 — the same as a community in Massachusetts did in 2005 with a resulting significant reduction in youth beginning to smoke.  He said New Jersey Governor and Republican presidential candidate Chris Christi had just vetoed a bill to raise the tobacco purchase age to 21. 

Tim said such legislation is needed because “adults do not start smoking; kids do.  It is a pediatric problem  Raising the age will reduce adult smoking rates.”  It costs the United States $170 billion annually to treat the medical consequences of smoking.  He said the Restaurant Association is a tobacco front. 

Tim said Paul Miller, who defeated Mary Lou Connolly, may sponsor his (Tim’s) legislation this year in the county legislature.  Tim said he sponsored every environmental bill that came through the county legislature while in office. 

Tobacco, he said, seems to be treated differently than other toxic products due to its longevity in use.  He said 480,000 people die each year in the US from tobacco related illnesses.  The US Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision emboldened the tobacco industry because running for office is now more expensive.  “Running boils down to money,” he said, “and money played a big role” in the defeat of his 21 purchase age bill.  The tobacco industry, he said, “confuses, delays, [and] buys.  We should work closer together in environmental and public health issues.”

He said the Michigan governor “should be arrested and thrown in jail” for the Flint water poisoning and some e-cigarettes contain nicotine.  He finished with “I do have hope” and “Never give up.”

During the Q&A, Lou Ismay asked if we should frame environmental issues as public health matters to advance their cause.  Tim responded saying it can be argued that guns and poverty are public health issues.   John Wolcott said climate change is the ultimate health issue.  Tim was asked about US Senator Kristen Gillibrand and the tobacco industry; he said “I’m sure she has received tobacco money.”

Lynne Jackson said we have made huge anti-tobacco progress in the last thirty years.  Russell Ziemba agreed saying that “as a kid,[he remembers that] most adults smoked.  There has been a big change in the past fifty years.”  Sylvia Barnard said tobacco is also a gendered issue.  High school boys had smoking areas but not girls. 

A question concerned military personnel and PX stores.  Soldiers can buy cigarettes on a base at age 18 but not in an off-base store in states where the purchase age is 21.  Someone said soldiers can often go into bars and be served alcohol at age 18 with a military ID. 

Tim said his dad, a World War Two veteran, died too young about 30 years due to his smoking habit.  Lynne said her dad, also a Second World War soldier, received cartons of cigarettes as part of his rations, and traded them because he did not smoke.

Tim said that when California became the first state to ban tobacco smoking in bars and restaurants, he realized that it could be done in New York too. 


Published in March/April 2016
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