New Jersey made national news last week when Gov. Chris Christie signed a bill to raise the smoking age to 21, making it the third state in the country to end teenage tobacco purchases in an effort to keep young people from becoming addicted to nicotine.
But less attention was paid to the governor’s approval, with modifications, of legislation that could increase by nearly two-thirds the state’s budget for smoking prevention and cessation programs. The measure would divert as much as $7 million a year in tobacco tax revenue for those purposes, which anti-smoking advocates claim Christie has given short shrift in the past. Smoking is considered the leading cause of preventable death nationwide.
Christie, a second-term Republican with less than six months left in office, signed some 80 bills on Friday, including a landmark law to hike the age of tobacco purchases from 19 to 21; the measure also applies to electronic cigarettes. Hawaii was the first state to adopt a 21-year-old smoking law, in 2015, and California followed last year. Similar bills are pending in Oregon and Maine, according to reports, and a growing number of municipalities — including more than a dozen Garden State communities — have raised the age locally.
The governor also outlined his support for a bill (A-3338) championed by Assemblyman Tim Eustace (D-Bergen) and Sen. Brian Stack (D-Hudson) and Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) that would ensure 1 percent of the revenue collected through commercial and wholesale tobacco purchases is used for anti-smoking efforts under the Department of Health. In fiscal year 2016, the state collected some $695 million through these sales.
Timing is everything
But Christie said the timing of the proposal, which would have taken effect in the current year, would disrupt the fiscal year 2018 budget that he and lawmakers struggled to balance earlier this month. Therefore he issued a conditional veto for the bill, urging lawmakers to revise it so that it would instead begin the following year. That change appears likely to be approved, as the revised measure is already posted for a vote with a list of bills slated for consideration Monday in the Assembly.
“New Jersey will be assured the benefit of even further anti-smoking initiatives, without obstructing the carefully-crafted Fiscal Year 2018 budget,” Christie wrote in his conditional veto message, noting his administration has avoided making supplemental appropriations after the budget is adopted. “We will not change that policy now,” he wrote.
Christie also stressed that the state has spent roughly $10 million a year on these initiatives; a total of $11.3 million in state and federal dollars is budgeted for the current year, most of it for programs run by the Department of Health and the Department of Human Services. This includes the New Jersey Quitline, a toll-free counseling hotline that also offers free nicotine gum and patches to help people break the habit.
The funding legislation, debated in various forms for several years, would amend a 1982 law that created the tobacco tax dedication. That statute now sets the diversion for anti-smoking efforts at a fixed dollar amount — $150,000 from retail cigarette sales and $500,000 from wholesale transactions — regardless of the total tax revenue collected by the state.
Smoking in NJ on decline
Federal data shows smoking rates in the Garden State have continued to decline. In 2015, some 13.5 percent of adults were smoking — four percentage points lower than the national average — and down from 17.3 percent in 2012, according to the Department of Health. Smoking among youth dropped from 14.3 percent in 2010 to 8.2 percent in 2014, the DOH said
But significant disparities continue, with more tobacco use among black, low-income, and high-school-educated New Jerseyans, advocates note, and more needs to be done to prevent youngsters from becoming addicted. More than 12 percent of Garden State high school students now use e-cigarettes and some 3,900 kids under 18 will become daily smokers each year, according to data from the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. In addition, 143,000 residents now under 18 will die prematurely from tobacco use.
Those health impacts come at a cost, the campaign found. New Jersey spends more than $4 billion annually on medical issues caused by tobacco use, nearly $1.2 billion of this through the publicly funded Medicaid program. Smoking also caused nearly $3.2 billion in lost productivity in the Garden State, advocates said.
According to Sen. Joe Vitale (D-Middlesex), the longtime chairman of the Senate health committee, young people ages 18 to 21 are particularly vulnerable, since that is the age range when many tobacco users convert from experimental to regular, daily smoking.
“Making it harder to buy cigarettes by raising the age to legally purchase them in New Jersey will help prevent our youth from becoming lifelong smokers and suffering the long-term effects of the habit,” said Vitale, who sponsored the bill to raise the age along with Sen. Richard Codey (D-Essex), Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen), who heads the Human Services Committee, Assemblyman Herb Conaway (D-Burlington), chair of the Health Committee, and others.
Last summer Christie conditionally vetoed another proposal by Vitale and Vainieri Huttle to ban smoking on all state, county, and local public beaches, parks, and historic grounds. The governor, who had blocked previous attempts to pass the so-called beach ban, agreed to restrict smoking on state grounds, but said local communities deserve to make their own decisions about tobacco use. The Legislature later approved the governor’s changes.