In a quest to curb the “alarming” growth of electronic smoking among teens, two New Jersey Republicans have proposed legislation that would subject those under 21 to a $500 fine for possessing any type of e-cigarette device or product.
It is already illegal in the Garden State to sell minors cigarettes or tobacco products — including e-cigarettes, or vapes, which convert nicotine-infused liquids into a vapor that can be inhaled. And New Jersey has some of the nation’s strongest public smoking restrictions, prohibiting tobacco use in public buildings, beaches and parks.
But the new proposal, announced Tuesday by Assemblywoman BettyLou DeCroce and Assemblyman Anthony M. Bucco (both R-Morris), would add New Jersey to a long list of states that also penalize young people for having e-cigarette products on their person. Several Garden State municipalities have also adopted possession bans for minors, the lawmakers said, including Evesham Township.
DeCroce said it is time to consider a statewide approach. “We need to do more to protect our youth from the harmful effects of nicotine products like e-cigarettes and vapes,” she said “The popularity of electronic smoking devices among our youth is growing at an alarming rate.”
But Joelle Lester, director of the Tobacco Control Legal Consortium at the Public Health Law Center, who has studied these laws nationwide, cautioned against this approach. Research has shown that it is more useful to focus on restricting the sale of these products, she said, adding that possession bans can be difficult to enforce and are often selectively applied in a way that ends up harming some groups, like individuals of color, more than others.
“Laws that penalize underage youth for purchase, use, or possession of tobacco products (PUP laws) seem to be ineffective in reducing underage tobacco use,” Lester said. “In addition, they divert focus and energy from addressing irresponsible retailers and tobacco industry tactics.”
Stats show big jump in teen vaping
Studies from the federal Food and Drug Administration show that the use of vapes — which some people also use to ingest marijuana products — escalated 77 percent last year among high school students nationwide.
While regular smoking rates in New Jersey have declined and remain below the national average for teens and adults, the explosion in e-cigarette use — especially among youngsters with developing brains — has health officials concerned. Vapes are now the most popular form of tobacco use among teens, with more than one in five high school students using an electronic smoking device at some point during the 2016-2017 year, according to a youth survey conducted by the state Department of Health.
In response, the DOH has launched a statewide campaign to reduce teen vaping, fueled by $7 million in taxes collected on tobacco products sold in New Jersey. The e-cigarette trend also prompted several Assembly Democrats to introduce a measure to restrict deliveries of mail-order purchases of vape or tobacco products to individuals over age 21, an effort to ensure teens can’t purchase these items through the internet.
A draft version of the proposal by DeCroce and Bucco (A-5107) was posted Tuesday to the Assembly Republican website and has yet to be reviewed by any legislative committees (or attract Senate supporters). It would make it a “petty disorderly persons offense” for anyone under age 21 to “knowingly possess” an e-cigarette device or its components, including the related cartridges containing liquid infused with nicotine or other substances.
The bill text notes that, while petty disorderly persons offenses are ordinarily punishable by a $500 fine, 30 days in jail, or both, violators of the vape possession ban would only face the fine. Second or third offenses could result in doubled fines. The proposal, which would take effect immediately upon enactment, does not explain who would be responsible for enforcing the ban.
Setting a tough new standard
“We need to send a stronger message to young people about the dangers of vaping,” DeCroce said.
Lester, whose Public Health Law Center is a project of the Mitchell Hamline School of Law in Saint Paul, Minnesota, said this proposal could involve some of the most stringent charges nationwide.
All 50 states and Washington, D.C. now ban sales of tobacco products to minors. Some 38 jurisdictions also prohibit e-cigarette possession among those under age, according to information Lester’s team published in December. But the vast majority of these states use age 18 or 19 as the cut-off, with only Hawaii and Washington, D.C. having possession bans that extend to age 21.
“Prohibition doesn’t tell you what the penalties are or who is enforcing these bans,” Lester noted. “And that can have a big impact on how people experience these laws.”
According to the Law Center data, states other than New Jersey with no current ban on e-cigarette possession among minors include: California, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Nevada, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina and Pennsylvania.