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NJ Lawmaker Pushes Tobacco Tax Hike

Measure would direct extra revenue to efforts to deter smoking.

Credit: Amanda Brown
State Sen. Joseph F. Vitale (D-Middlesex), chairman of the Senate health committee.

New Jersey lawmakers are considering raising the tax on all non-cigarette tobacco products to the same level as cigarettes. That would add millions to the dollars already flowing into the state’s economy.

New Jersey taxes cigarettes at $2.70 a pack, among the highest in the nation. The revenue – close to $770 million -- goes to paying off a state bond issue, reimbursing hospitals for charity care to the poor and uninsured, and funding the general costs of state government.

But just $1.5 million went to tobacco control programs last year, down from $30 million in 2003. The extra revenue from creating tax parity on all tobacco products would be used to expand efforts to discourage New Jerseyans -- especially teens -- from picking up the smoking habit.

“The state still has some elements of smoking cessation programs in place but they are a shadow of their former selves,” said Sen. Joseph F. Vitale (D-Middlesex). “It is not as though the state isn’t interested and doesn’t care. It does some things but not nearly what it needs to do.”

Hiking the tax on non-cigarette tobacco products -- such as small cigars and smokeless tobacco -- is expected to generate $19 million more in revenues, money that advocates hope would be largely spent on anti-smoking programs. The tax could have the added dividend of deterring smoking by making the habit more expensive.

Either way, anti-smoking advocates said it would be a win/win in the battle against lung cancer, New Jersey’s No. 1 cancer killer, with an estimated 4,160 deaths last year, according to the American Cancer Society.

Vitale, chairman of the Senate’s health committee, said he will seek to pass tobacco tax parity legislation in tandem with the 2013 state budget, which must be ratified by the legislature and signed by Gov. Chris Christie before the new fiscal year begins July 1.

Combating smoking is not solely the state’s responsibility, Vitale said. Advocacy groups like the American Cancer Society and the Lung Association “work diligently to try to reach the general public and children to keep the message going. It is about messaging all the time, and New Jersey really has fallen pretty far short in terms of where we used to be.”

Considering how much is collected from every package of cigarettes sold in the state -- $769.2 million in fiscal 2011 -- New Jersey “is not even spending pennies on the dollar when it comes to investing in tobacco control,” said Blair Horner, vice president for advocacy of the Eastern Division of the American Cancer Society. “We’re hoping that gets reversed this year.”

A report released last week by the U.S. Surgeon General's office on the use of tobacco by children and young adults called for increased tobacco taxes to discourage young Americans from picking up the smoking habit.

Among adult smokers, according to the report, 88 percent started smoking by 18.

The report calls for an end to the "tobacco epidemic" and suggests mass media campaigns, tobacco tax hikes, school programs, and expansion of smoke-free zones to decrease youth tobacco use.

“We have come a long way since the days of smoking on airplanes and in college classrooms, but we have a long way to go,” the report said. “We have the responsibility to act and do something to prevent our youth from smoking.”

While New Jersey has seen a drop in teen smoking, more money needs to be spent on anti-smoking advertising and efforts stepped up to enforce the tobacco sales law, Horner said. The state already enlists teens for random checks through a Tobacco Age of Sale Enforcement Program.

“Virtually everyone who starts smoking starts before the age of 19, which is the minimum purchase age in New Jersey,” Horner said. “Clearly [compliance] is a problem.”

Despite Horner's pessimism, New Jersey is making progress against youth smoking, according to figures from the state Department of Health. The percentage of New Jersey high school students who reported they had ever tried smoking has steadily declined from 60 percent in 2001 to 34 percent in 2010, according to the 2010 NJ Youth Tobacco Survey, while the percentage of New Jersey high school students who smoke declined from 24 percent in 2001 to 14 percent in 2010.

Since 2001, the state has funded the Princeton Center for Leadership Training, which works with school districts to promote the Comprehensive Tobacco-Free School Policy, prohibiting tobacco use of any kind, at anytime, anywhere on school grounds. So far 30 school districts have received technical assistance and training through this program.

Such programs are needed to combat the $220 million a year that tobacco companies spend promoting and marketing tobacco in New Jersey, said Dr. Fred Jacobs, former New Jersey health commissioner and now chair of the Tobacco Strike Force for the Northeastern Division of the American Cancer Society.

Last year, Jacobs failed to persuade the legislature to increase the anti-tobacco budget. “But now it is a year later and maybe things have changed,” he said. The governor is proposing a 10 percent income tax reduction. “He may be doing this because the economy is looking better. And if the economy is looking better, maybe we could look at prioritizing public health expenditures in a rational way.”

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