Gov. Christie to Decide Fate of Bill Raising Tobacco Purchase Age to 21

Jul 05, 2017

Now that Gov. Chris Christie has gotten off of the beach in Island Beach State Park and returned to Trenton to sign a budget bill that re-opened state government and, just in time for the Fourth of July, state parks, maybe he’ll have time to consider legislation raising the minimum age to purchase tobacco products and electronic smoking devices in New Jersey to 21.

Needless to say, the Legislature had been busy the last week of June attempting to reach an agreement on the state budget. It finally passed a $34.7 billion version early Tuesday morning, and Christie immediately signed it.

But before the budget battle dominated proceedings in Trenton, the Assembly had passed the bill upping the smoking age on June 22. The Senate had passed the same bill back on May 26, 2016. It would make New Jersey the third state to make 21 the minimum age for purchasing tobacco products, behind only Hawaii and California. Similar bills are winding their way through legislatures in at least Oregon, Minnesota, Michigan, Washington state, Florida, Texas, New York, Massachusetts, Maine and even tobacco-producing North Carolina. The federal law sets the age at 18; New Jersey has had a minimum age of 19 since 2006, as do Alabama, Alaska and Utah.

The bill, S359, was passed by wide margins in both houses. The Senate vote was 23 to 14, with three Senators not voting. The margin in the lower body was 52 to 17, with five assembly members not voting and six abstaining.

The question now is if Christie will sign the bill into law. He vetoed a similar bill in January 2016.

If the governor does the same thing this year, the bill would likely be dead in the water. At least two-thirds of each legislative body, or 27 senators and 54 assembly members, are needed to override a veto. If the opposing senators stick to their guns, Christie would have his way.

Southern Ocean County’s lawmakers were against, or at least wary, of the bill. Sen. Christopher J. Connors cast a no vote in the Senate. Brian E. Rumpf was among the not-voting contingent in the Assembly while DiAnne C. Gove abstained.

The vote was along party lines. Democrats have a 24-16 majority in the Senate and control the Assembly by a 52-28 count. All three members of the 9th Legislative District are Republicans.

Dems support the bill because public health and anti-smoking groups support it, saying federal data shows 90 percent of tobacco users begin their use before they turn 21 and 440,000 New Jersey smokers are 19 and 20 years old.

Republicans oppose the legislation because convenience store owners oppose it and because the state could lose $16 million due to reduced tobacco tax revenue.

The debate over the minimum age to purchase tobacco and vaping products isn’t just a state issue. Like the minimum wage and sanctuary cities issues, many municipalities have taken matters into their own hands. According to the group Tobacco 21, as of February 2017 over 220 municipalities in 16 states had raised the minimum age to 21, including New York City, Kansas City, Cleveland, Boston and San Francisco.

According to Tobacco 21, 22 municipalities in New Jersey didn’t wait for Trenton to take action and upped the minimum age to 21 on their own. They include Belleville, Bergenfield, Bogota, East Rutherford, Englewood, Fair Lawn, Garfield, Hanover, Haledon, Highland Park, Maplewood, Paterson, Princeton, Rutherford, Sayreville, Teaneck, Tenafly, Trenton, Union City, Westwood, West Orange and Wyckoff.

— Rick Mellerup

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