Bill to raise minimum smoking age clears N.J. Senate

TRENTON, NJ — Legislation sponsored by state senators Richard J. Codey and Joseph F. Vitale raising the minimum age to buy tobacco products and electronic smoking devices from 19 to 21 years of age was approved by the Senate on May 26.

“Tobacco, in all its forms, is a killer. Every day, more of our youth become addicted and we simply can’t allow it to continue,” Codey said in a press release. “This measure will save lives and it will save taxpayers billions of dollars in health care costs.”

The annual health care costs in New Jersey directly caused by smoking are $4 billion, according to statistics reported on the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids website. Of that figure, an estimated $1 billion is covered by the state Medicaid program. The amounts do not include health costs caused by exposure to secondhand smoke, smoking-caused fires, smokeless tobacco use, or cigar and pipe smoking. In New Jersey, it is also estimated that 5,400 children become new daily smokers each year. Additionally, according to the New Jersey Department of Health, 14.3 percent of youth aged 12 to 18 years smoke in New Jersey.

“Data surveys show that if individuals aren’t smokers by 21 years of age, they will most likely not start later in their lives,” Vitale, chairman of the Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee, said in the release. “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.”

The senators noted that tobacco use remains the leading cause of preventable death in the United States, killing more than 480,000 people each year, as reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The federal government estimates that 700 children under the age of 18 become regular smokers each day, and almost one-third will die from it. Additionally, studies have shown that the ages of 18 to 21 are a critical period when many smokers move from experimental smoking to regular, daily use.

Many also oppose this statute change, citing personal freedom for adults and loss of revenue for store owners. Store owners argue that when people enter their stores to buy cigarettes, they also often buy other merchandise; if they cannot get cigarettes, they won’t buy the other merchandise either, leading to revenue loss. For this stated reason, Gov. Chris Christie vetoed a past bill to raise the smoking age to 21.

If it does pass this though, New Jersey would be the second state, after Hawaii, to adopt legislation restricting access to nicotine and tobacco before age age 21. In October 2013, New York City enacted an ordinance prohibiting retailers in New York City from selling cigarettes, tobacco products and electronic cigarettes to anyone under the age of 21. The ordinance took effect in May 2014.

The minimum age to purchase tobacco products in all but four states is 18. The minimum age is 19 in New Jersey, Alabama, Alaska, Utah and the District of Columbia. New Jersey increased the tobacco purchasing age from 18 to 19 in 2006. Some localities in the United States have imposed minimum ages in excess of 19, including 16 towns in New Jersey which have raised the age to 21.

The bill, S-359, was approved by the Senate with a vote of 23-14. It now heads to the Assembly for consideration.