Lawmakers OK New Funding for Tobacco Education Programs

Legislation would divert portion of annual tobacco tax collection to anti-smoking initiatives

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Starting next summer, New Jersey will begin to increase by an estimated $7 million a year its annual budget for anti-smoking initiatives, thanks to a likely change in state tax law that will add nearly two-thirds to the roughly $10 million spent on these public health initiatives in recent years.

On Friday the state Senate voted nearly unanimously to support the bipartisan proposal to divert a portion of the annual tobacco tax collection for smoking education and cessation programs. In fiscal year 2016, this tax on cigarettes, cigars, and bulk tobacco garnered some $695 million for New Jersey’s coffers, most of which goes into the general fund.

The Senate action codified changes outlined by Gov. Chris Christie last July, when he issued a conditional veto on an earlier version of the legislation. At that time, he refused to sign it into law without changes that delayed the start of the collections until July 2018, the beginning of the new fiscal year.

An earlier version of the bill called for the diversion to start in the middle of the current budget year, something Christie said would be destabilizing, given the state’s precarious finances. The Assembly approved Christie’s changes later that month.

Discouraging young smokers

New Jersey became the third state nationwide to hike the legal age to buy tobacco to 21, a change that took effect in November, and Christie has defended his administration’s efforts to reduce smoking here. (Later last month, a national ad campaign detailing the dangers of smoking launched, paid for by tobacco companies as part of a landmark 2006 legal settlement.)

In the current year, a total of $11.3 million in state and federal funding is slated for tobacco education and cessation programs, most of them operated by the state Department of Health. This includes the Quitline, a toll-free hotline that offers counseling and free nicotine gum and patches to help people kick the habit. Health officials said they have spent at least $10 million annually on this work in recent years.

Tobacco use down

Federal data suggests cigarette use here is lower than the national average and has continued to decline; some 13.5 percent of Garden State adults and 8.2 percent of youth lit up in 2015, studies show.

But anti-smoking advocates have criticized the Christie administration for not doing more, especially to address racial disparities that show higher rates of tobacco use among black and Hispanic residents. They claim the governor cut back on critical funding for this purpose in 2012 and the money has yet to be restored.

The Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids notes 3,500 youngsters become daily smokers each year and 143,000 children will ultimately die of smoking.

“While the United States continues to make great strides in reducing cigarette smoking, New Jersey can help accelerate the progress by dedicating funding from cigarette taxes to programs that help to reduce smoking and promote better health for our residents,” said state Sen. Brian Stack (D-Hudson), a lead sponsor of the Senate version.

“The money we spend in the reduction of smoking will be made back multifold in decreased health costs,” he added. “This is a modest expenditure that will have enormous benefits.”

Diminishing diversion

According to Stack and Democratic Senate leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen), the other lead sponsor, federal health experts suggest New Jersey should be spending as much as 10 times as it does on anti-smoking programs. Originally, the bill — which dates back several years — sought to divert 5 percent of the state’s annual tobacco tax collection for these purposes. Over time, that was amended to 1 percent.

Nearly three-dozen lawmakers have since signed on to support the measure, (A-3338/S-862), including Assembly members Tim Eustace (D-Bergen), Joe Lagana (D-Bergen), Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen), and Elizabeth Maher Muoio, (D-Mercer).

The legislation, which still requires Christie’s final approval, would amend a 1982 law that created the diversion. At that time lawmakers created a fixed carve-out for anti-smoking efforts that called for using $150,000 from retail cigarette sales and $500,000 from wholesale transactions, regardless of the total collection.

“Smoking does enormous damage to the health of our residents, is highly addictive, and should be treated as such,” Weinberg said. “This law will reduce the use of tobacco, a product that has caused so much damage to our population and save lives.”