Age for Buying Cigarettes Going Up to 21 in NJ

Jul 26, 2017

On July 21, Gov. Christie signed into law legislation that raises the minimum age for purchasing tobacco products and electronic cigarettes in New Jersey from 19 to 21. When the law takes effect on Nov. 1, New Jersey will join Hawaii and California as states that have raised the smoking-purchase age to 21. Vendors licensed to sell tobacco products would be subject to fines of up to $1,000 for violating the law.

“By raising the minimum age to purchase tobacco products to 21, we are giving young people more time to develop a maturity and better understanding of how dangerous smoking can be, and that it is better to not start smoking in the first place,” Christie said in a statement.

“My mother died from the effects of smoking, and no one should lose their life due to any addictive substance,” he said. “Additionally, the less people who develop costly tobacco habits that can cause health problems, such as lung cancer, heart disease, and developmental issues, the less strain there will be on our healthcare system.”

He said about 12 percent of New Jersey adults between ages 18 and 24 smoke, according to the recent figures compiled by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 11,800 adults die annually in the Garden State as a result of smoking, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. The nonprofit group says the state’s annual healthcare costs from smoking exceed $4 billion.

The Democratic-controlled Legislature passed the measure along mostly party lines, with most Republicans opposed.

“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 Sen. Joe Vitale (D-Middlesex), a bill sponsor.

Sen. Christopher J. Connors and Assemblywoman DiAnne C. Gove (both R-Ocean/Burl./Atl.), respectively, opposed and abstained on the legislation for similar reasons.

“When you’re 18, you can serve in the military where you have to make life-or-death decisions,” Connors said. “You come home from Iraq, put down your rifle and now you can’t buy a pack of cigarettes.”

He added, “I understand the passion behind this legislation. I certainly would not choose to smoke. It’s a matter of making a personal decision. When you’re 18 you can sue or be sued, so you’re old enough to make adult decisions.”

“By having problems with this law means that I am certainly not an advocate for smoking,” said Gove. “But when you turn 18, it’s like you’re emancipated and can vote, serve in the armed forces and make other important decisions that greatly affect your life. So it doesn’t make sense that you can’t buy cigarettes.”

Karen Blumenfeld, executive director of NJ GASP (Global Advisors on Smoke-Free Policy), said 30 towns in New Jersey already have ordinances on the books banning sale of cigarettes to customers younger than 21 and there are more than 20 others that are considering it.

“This new law will make it uniform in all of New Jersey,” she said.

Blumenfeld cited the example of Needham, Mass., the first municipality in the country to raise the legal age for purchase.

“Within a few years, the rate of smoking among teenagers in Needham was 40 percent lower than it was in neighboring towns,” she said.  

Blumenfeld said a two-year hike in the smoking age would save lives.

“Those two years are exactly when youth and young adults are experimenting and may initiate smoking,” she said. “Ninety percent of all people who smoke start to use tobacco before the age of 21.”

The Office of Legislative Services said the state would lose $4.5 million to $12 million in tax revenue in the first year of implementation, and $5.6 million to $15.7 million the following year. The amount of losses would diminish by 4 percent a year as more people quit smoking.

“The money the state would lose on tobacco tax revenue would eventually be made up by the reduction in tobacco-related illnesses like cancer and emphysema among state employees and Medicaid recipients,” Blumenfeld said.

Among adults, New Jersey has the third-lowest smoking rate in the nation, at 13.5 percent, compared to 17.5 percent nationally.

— Eric Englund

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