It may not be beach season, but New Jerseyans who enjoy a puff of tobacco with their winter walk on the boardwalk or strolling in their local park have just over a week left to modify their behavior.
On January 16 it will be illegal to smoke cigarettes, cigars and pipes — as well as use vapes, or smokeless tobacco devices — in public parks, forests, historic sites and on other state-owned property, or on beaches and boardwalks anywhere in the Garden State. Violators of the law, likely one of the most extensive tobacco-use bans in the nation, can be fined up to $1,000.
The law was signed by Gov. Phil Murphy at the height of summer and at a time when relations were warmer between the front office and legislative leaders — Senate President Steve Sweeney, a sponsor of the legislation, and other lawmakers joined Murphy at the seaside for the law’s signing. The ban is intended to benefit public health and the environment, reducing the number of cigarette butts left in outdoor spaces.
“The Jersey Shore has always been one of our state’s — and nation’s — great natural treasures, and a place for families to enjoy,” Murphy said at the July event. “Signing this legislation demonstrates my firm commitment to protecting our environment and public health while preserving the quality and cleanliness of our public beaches and park areas.”
Christie said ‘no’
Although the ban, under discussion for more than a decade, had passed the Legislature several times in the past, former Gov. Chris Christie had declined to approve the proposal as written, suggesting these decisions should be left to local government. Hundreds of municipalities in New Jersey have already passed smoking bans for their local beaches or parks; the new measure also allows local officials to carve out a small smoking section at these sites.
Cigarette use has declined among New Jersey residents in recent years and remains below the national average; however, nearly 14 percent of adults and 17 percent of teens are regular smokers, according to state data. Some 12,000 smokers here still die each year of related conditions, according to the American Lung Association, and scores more develop lung cancer, heart disease, cancer or stroke.
At the same time, the use of electronic devices, called e-cigarettes or vapes — which enable users to inhale a nicotine-infused, usually flavored mist, instead of smoke — has exploded recently, escalating 77 percent nationwide last year alone, according to federal data. One in five New Jersey high school students tried vaping at least once in 2018, according to the state.
Public health is not the only concern that prompted the ban. Outdoor smoking also causes environmental problems, experts note, and volunteers have picked up tens of thousands of cigarette filters during annual beach sweeps along the Jersey Shore.
Public and environmental health
“Not only do these littered butts present obvious risks to young children who may ingest them, but more significantly, littered cigarette butts leach toxins and contaminate our oceans and bays,” said Cristine Delnevo, co-leader of the cancer prevention and control research program at Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey. “The New Jersey public beach smoking ban can help mitigate this threat to our ecosystem and our human health.”
The state has recently expanded its efforts to reduce tobacco use, including investing nearly $7 million from the state’s tobacco tax collection to help curb smoking — and vaping, in particular — through an initiative led by the state Department of Health. The Department of Human Services has sought to expand Medicaid coverage for individuals seeking to quit smoking; national studies show that as many as one in three Medicaid members smoke cigarettes.
The smoking ban updates the “New Jersey Smoke Free Air Act of 2006,” which eliminated tobacco use in bars, restaurants and places of business, among others. The changes approved last year add beaches, boardwalks, state, county and local parks, historic sites, and more; the ban also applies to any state-owned or leased lands and waterways and facilities, like marinas, managed by the state Department of Environmental Protection.
Who’s going to enforce it?
“The law will also protect our safety from careless smokers,” said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, who has long advocated for the ban. “They could set areas of parks and beaches on fire, picnic tables or boardwalks. Now we can start protecting our children from second hand smoke, stop turning our beaches and parks into ashtray.”
While it is not quite clear who would enforce the ban at outdoor sites, the measure enables local or state officials, or site operators, to issue fines for those who do light up. The fine for a first-time violation is $250 and $500 for a second-time offense; additional instances can cost someone $1,000.
In addition to Sweeney (D-Gloucester), sponsors of the measure — which passed both houses this spring with nearly universal support — included Sens. Vin Gopal (D-Monmouth) and Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), and Assembly Members Vincent Mazzeo (D-Atlantic), Clinton Calabrese (D-Bergen), Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen), and Paul Moriarty (D-Gloucester.)