NJ Lawmakers, Advocates Push to Spend More to Curb Smoking

Lilo H. Stainton | June 19, 2017 | Health Care
State officials indicate they’re already investing in anti-smoking efforts, as smoking rates decline

Momentum is growing to expand New Jersey’s investment in smoking prevention programs, a move supporters said would bring down tobacco use, improve public health, and reduce mortality while helping to control healthcare spending.

The state Senate is scheduled to cast a final vote Monday on a bipartisan-backed proposal to devote one percent of the tax revenue from all tobacco products sales to support evidenced-based programs to prevent kids from starting, to reduce smoking rates in general, and to lessen the impacts of second-hand smoke. Estimates suggest this would provide between $6 million and $7 million for this work in the coming year.

The proposal, which has been debated in some form since 2015, received strong support from a group of anti-smoking advocates who released a report Friday that said this level of investment would help prevent more than 3,200 children from becoming smokers and would keep one-third of these youngsters from dying prematurely. It would also save the state nearly $68 million in future healthcare costs, they said.

The report, “Keeping the Promise: Comprehensive Tobacco Prevention and Cessation for New Jersey,” issued by the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, American Cancer Society’s Cancer Action Network, American Heart Association, American Lung Association, and GASP, the Global Advisors on Smoke-free Policy, claims that New Jersey has allocated no state dollars to its tobacco control program since 2012, “ranking it last among all states, year after year.”

Now’s the time

“This report shows that smoking prevention measures are successful if implemented and will reduce healthcare costs but, more importantly, will save the lives of our residents,” said Sen. Joseph Vitale, (D-Middlesex), the chair of the health committee who has led efforts to reduce tobacco use. “We cannot continue to allow thousands of lives to be lost each year and to continue to see billions of dollars in preventable healthcare costs expended, without taking action,” he said.  “New Jersey must dedicate funding to help our residents, and we have to begin now.”

But state officials insist they have invested in anti-smoking efforts, including spending more than $9 million this year through the departments of health, human services, and education; $10.7 million is budgeted for this work for fiscal year 2018, which starts in July, according to DOH spokeswoman Donna Leusner. The funding, a mix of state and federal dollars, supports the NJ Quitline (1-866-657-8677), which offers counseling and nicotine gum and patches; school-based anti-smoking efforts; and tobacco-sale inspections, among many other things, she said.

New Jersey was one of the first states to ban indoor smoking statewide, in 2006; lawmakers have sought to further restrict tobacco use at parks and beaches, but last summer Gov. Chris Christie vetoed a bill by Vitale to do so. Smoking remains one of several public-health priorities for DOH Commissioner Cathleen Bennett, who has teamed up with state and local agencies to improve population health. Municipalities have also played a growing role in tobacco prevention.

Banning smoking in public places

More than 300 municipalities have adopted ordinances that restrict smoking in parks or other public spaces, Leusner said, and several dozen have hiked the cigarette-purchase age to 21. In Princeton, local officials have also sought to regulate the sale of smokeless tobacco products, and in Trenton, the Trenton Health Team partnered with a nonprofit and social media “influencers” to help curb teen smoking.

In 2015, some 13.5 percent of Garden State adults smoked regularly, according to the latest data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — the third-lowest rate in the country, Leusner said, and well below the national average of 17.5 percent. Youth smoking rates are also below the norm nationwide, she said, and have been dropping for several years.

Despite these gains, CDC data showed 11,800 New Jersey adults died annually from smoking-related illnesses, including lung cancer and coronary disease. In 2009, treating those conditions in New Jersey cost more than $4 billion, according to the agency. And while smoking rates have declined overall, tobacco use remains much higher among black residents (18 percent), those with only a high-school education (nearly 19 percent), and low-income New Jerseyans, one in five of whom smoke, according to the Keeping the Promise report.

A deadly threat

“Tobacco use still poses an enormous threat to New Jerseyans,” the authors wrote. “Statistics can be mind-numbing, but we cannot forget that these numbers represent real people — mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, colleagues and friends.”

The report also renewed criticism of Christie’s controversial decision to borrow against future payments from the landmark 1998 national tobacco settlement to help fill a budget gap in 2014. The authors said New Jersey was slated to receive more than $944 million from settlement payments and estimated tax revenues connected to the deal; while this money was intended to fund smoking-prevention programs, this use was not codified in the agreement and a number of states have used these funds to plug budget holes.

Anti-smoking advocates said a commitment of some $7 million annually to these programs would be one way to help “keep the promise” New Jersey made when it signed on to the settlement nearly two decades ago. While the CDC recommends New Jersey invest more than $100 million annually in these programs — and cigarette companies spend some $177 million on marketing and promotion — even a limited commitment could have a real impact, decreasing youth smoking by as much as 1.4 percent over three to five years, the report notes.

The bill up for a vote Monday, (A-3338) led by Assemblyman Tim Eustace, (D-Bergen) and nine of his colleagues, would dedicate one percent of the tax revenue from commercial and wholesale tobacco product sales; Eustace and Sen. Brian Stack, (D-Hudson), who first introduced the measure in 2015, originally proposed a five percent dedication, but the measure has been heavily amended over the years.

The measure, which passed the Assembly in November with unanimous support, would amend a 1982 law that directed that $150,000 from retail cigarette sales and $500,000 from wholesale transactions — regardless of the total tax revenue — be set aside for tobacco-prevention work. In fiscal year 2016, cigarette and wholesale revenues generated some $695 million for state coffers in total; one percent of this would provide nearly $7 million for the Department of Health’s anti-smoking efforts.