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Senate Leadership Creates Heat to Support Smoking Ban

Sweeney hits the Belmar boardwalk to push for a ban on smoking on New Jersey’s beaches and in its parks

beach butts cigarette

Democratic lawmakers have launched a renewed drive to ban smoking at all beaches, parks, and other public lands in New Jersey -- citing health and environmental concerns -- through a proposal that could well be the most far-reaching law of its kind nationwide.

A half-dozen states already have laws or executive orders that restrict tobacco use in certain outdoor spaces, like playgrounds and farmers markets or at athletic events, according to the American Lung Association, which tracks state actions to combat smoking. Oklahoma and Oregon banned cigarettes on certain state grounds or facilities, and Maine doesn’t allow smoking at the beach, at playgrounds, and in parts of public parks like picnic areas and historic sites.

But New Jersey appears to be alone in trying to extend the prohibition to all state, county, and municipal properties, said Thomas Carr, the Lung Association’s director of national policy. Lawmakers in New Jersey are also discussing various restrictions to curb the use of electronic cigarettes, or vapes, an issue that Carr said has become a growing focus nationwide.

Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) held a press conference on the Belmar boardwalk Tuesday to underscore his support for the beach and park ban, which is scheduled for a vote in the Democratic-led Senate on Thursday. A companion version is up for final approval in the Assembly the same day.

In 2014, Gov. Chris Christie vetoed a similar proposal, insisting that decisions like this are better left to local government, and a number of Jersey Shore communities have already banned cigarettes on their own. Carr said local bans are common nationwide and can engender stronger public support than statewide actions.

The latest New Jersey proposal (S-1734), led largely by Sen. Shirley Turner (D-Mercer) and Sen. Joseph Vitale (D-Middlesex), who heads the health committee, permits municipalities to carve out 15 percent of the beach for a smoking section -- as long as it’s not adjacent to the playground, picnic grove, or other children’s area. It would not apply to parking lots or public golf courses.

“We are here to announce the next step in trying to improve public health for the millions of people who come to our beaches every year,” said Sweeney, who was joined by Cindy Zipf of Clean Ocean Action, John Weber of the SurfRider Foundation, Tim Dillingham of the Littoral Society, and Lynn Nowak of the American Cancer Society.

“We are going to move forward on the bill to ban smoking at New Jersey’s beaches as a way to keep dangerous secondhand smoke away from the people who use our beaches -- especially the children -- and as a means of keeping our beaches clean,” Sweeney said. Advocates have said cigarette butts are the number one cause of litter on these sandy stretches.

Belmar Mayor Matt Doherty, who also participated in the event, said a local ban instituted in his shore town has resulted in more beachgoers. “I believe we have the best beaches there are and we want to keep them that way. Smoke-free beaches will make them better,” he said.

Reducing public smoking is only one battle in the ongoing anti-smoking war. Carr said that in recent years state lawmakers have increasingly focused on raising the smoking age to 21 and addressing the concerns associated with vapes, which experts believe are luring a new generation of youngsters into a dangerous tobacco addiction.

“These (new concerns) took the wind out of the sails on this issue” of outdoor smoking bans, Carr said.

Rules released earlier this month by the Food and Drug Administration would ban the sale of e-cigs, which heat tobacco-infused oils to create a vapor that users inhale, to those under 18. They would also force vape manufacturers to eventually comply with the same restrictions governing cigarettes; the regulations also apply to cigars, pipe tobacco, and hookahs. Industry officials contend the devices are safer than smoking cigarettes and can help some people quit.

Earlier this year Vitale introduced a bill (S-298) that would take this one step further and ban the sale of most flavored oils; with hints of bubble-gum, strawberries, and other sweet treats, these are designed to entice young kids, critics said. Another proposal of his would ban the sale of all tobacco products and vape materials from pharmacies. The Senate health committee approved both measures last week.

In New Jersey, purchasers of cigarettes and other tobacco products must be at least 19. In January Christie vetoed an effort, also led by Vitale, to raise this bar to 21.

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