Maplewood poised to up smoking age to 21 in town

MAPLEWOOD, NJ — The Maplewood Township Committee is currently considering a proposal for an ordinance that would raise the age to which local retailers can sell tobacco products to 21; the state-mandated cutoff is currently 19.

According to Mayor Vic DeLuca, such an ordinance would cover the sales of both cigarettes and e-cigarettes in addition to any other tobacco-related merchandise. DeLuca said it would be enforced as smoking laws are now, with retailers who sell the products in question to anyone younger than 21 being penalized. Meanwhile, he said the township will continue to engage in anti-smoking educational efforts to encourage those under 21 to not obtain cigarettes or e-cigarettes through means other than purchasing them.

The ordinance — which DeLuca said will likely be voted on in May — comes after Gov. Chris Christie vetoed a similar bill in January that had been passed by the state Senate and Assembly. Though that measure has since been reintroduced in the Legislature, New Jersey municipalities have the option to approve tobacco-sale laws locally, and many have already done just that. In fact, as of press time April 5, a total of 16 towns throughout the state have increased the age to 21, including Princeton, East Rutherford and Teaneck.

And DeLuca acknowledged that Maplewood would see some compelling benefits if it decides to go that route as well.

“Hopefully, less people will begin smoking, and there will be less smoking-related deaths,” DeLuca told the News-Record in an April 3 email.

Concern for public health is indeed the reason the ordinance is being considered, with the mayor saying the committee first got the idea for it after being made aware of data indicating the prevalence of smoking among people under the age of 21. According to the Institute of Medicine, 90 percent of smokers started using tobacco before they turned 21. That is despite the fact that, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cigarette smoking causes roughly one in every five deaths in the United States per year, while the U.S. Surgeon General states that more than 1,200 people die each day due to smoking.

E-cigarettes are growing in popularity among young people as well, with the CDC reporting that use of the electronic devices among middle and high school students tripled from 2013 to 2014, rising from approximately 120,000 to 450,000 middle school students and approximately 660,000 to 2 million high school students. In addition, several studies — including two different 2015 surveys done by the University of Southern California and the University of Pittsburgh with the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Norris Cotton Cancer Center — found that teens who use e-cigarettes are more likely to smoke actual cigarettes later in life than those who do not.

Increasing the smoking age could be an effective response to these trends, according to the IOM, which alleges raising the minimum age would significantly reduce smoking rates, so much so that there will be 223,000 fewer premature deaths; 50,000 fewer deaths from lung cancer; and 4.2 million fewer years of life lost for persons born between 2000 and 2019.

But not everyone believes increasing the smoking age is the answer. NJ Food Council President and CEO Linda Doherty said doing so would have an adverse impact on numerous supermarkets and convenience stores her organization represents. In a statement sent to the News-Record, Doherty said retailers would experience a loss in revenue in a number of areas — not just cigarettes.

“The adult customer who can no longer purchase tobacco products in New Jersey may no longer patronize his favorite local retailer, who then loses the sale of not just the tobacco product but coffee, a sandwich or other items,” Doherty said. “This is a significant loss for food retail members who typically operate on slim margins of 1 or 2 percent.”

DeLuca said he realizes that some Maplewood shop owners may experience fewer ancillary sales if the ordinance is passed, but he said he will have to weigh that fact with the measure’s potential to save lives.

Critics of increasing the smoking age have also pointed out that New Jersey will see a reduction in sales taxes with fewer people legally allowed to buy cigarettes or e-cigarettes. The state Office of Legislative Services recently estimated that New Jersey would lose $16.2 million, though Doherty said the Food Council’s own data taken from just one of its large retailers shows a loss of $21 million in sales and excise taxes.

Meanwhile, e-cigarette advocates are objecting to the fact that the vaping devices are being included in smoking ordinances like the one Maplewood is considering. American Vaping Association President Gregory Conley said the primary purpose of e-cigarettes is to provide a healthy alternative that replicates the feel of traditional smoking so that people can give up actual cigarettes. And there is evidence that shows their effectiveness — a 2011 study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that 31 percent of e-cigarette users had abstained from smoking cigarettes for six months, while those who used e-cigarettes more than 20 times per day had a 70-percent quit rate.

So to lump vaping devices in with other tobacco products in the name of keeping people healthy is simply counterproductive, Conley said.

“Vapor products just lead the 19- and 20-year-old smokers to quit smoking,” Conley told the News-Record in a March 31 phone interview. “These local proposals are not recognizing that existing smokers need new and innovative options to get them off cigarettes.”

In fact, Conley said preventing those under 21 from purchasing e-cigarettes could actually drive them to start smoking regular cigarettes, referring to a 2015 study published in the Journal of Health Economics that saw a 0.9-percent increase in smoking among 12- to 17-year-olds living under an e-cigarette ban compared to minors who were not. This makes sense, he said, because it is far easier for teens to find a convenience store clerk willing to sell them cigarettes illegally than it is to obtain vaping devices.

As for the surveys that indicate e-cigarettes are a gateway to actual cigarettes, the AVA president argued that the evidence is not substantial enough to make that claim. Conley said those surveys do not prove that those who use vaping devices go on to become habitual smokers; instead, he said they only demonstrate the obvious — adventurous young people willing to experiment with e-cigarettes are also willing to try traditional smoking at least once.

Even with these protests, the push to increase the smoking age has been gaining traction across the country ever since Needham, Mass., passed the first ordinance of its kind in 2005. As of press time, more than 100 U.S. cities in nine states have raised the age to which retailers can sell tobacco products to 21, including New York City and Chicago. Hawaii even adopted 21 as the statewide age, with California seemingly poised to become the second state to do so once Gov. Jerry Brown signs the already-passed bill into law.

And supporters hope even more municipalities will pass ordinances like the one Maplewood is considering as a way to combat smoking, which is responsible for more than 480,000 deaths per year, according to the surgeon general. The Preventing Tobacco Addiction Foundation, whose Tobacco 21 project has become one of the leading national movements in favor of increasing the tobacco-purchasing age, works with advocacy groups throughout the country to raise awareness for that cause. That is because, as Eastern Regional Director Tom Geist explained, every effort to stop young people under the age of 21 from obtaining cigarettes goes a long way.

“When they reach the age of 18, 19, 20, that’s when (young people) are really consolidating their addiction and becoming lifetime smokers,” Geist told the News-Record in a March 31 phone interview. “If you can interrupt that stage of the addiction process, you can stop a lot of kids from becoming lifetime smokers.”

Geist added that if teens never get hooked on tobacco products, they will avoid the medical problems that go along with it — thus saving a lot of money in health care costs. According to Tobacco 21, smoking amounts to $4.06 billion in health care expenses in New Jersey. It also results in $3.15 billion in workers’ lost productivity.

Aside from the health and financial benefits, Global Advisors on Smokefree Policy Executive Director Karen Blumenfeld was skeptical that raising the tobacco purchasing age would hurt retailers.

“We’ve never seen any studies or (conclusive) evidence to show that,” Blumenfeld told the News-Record in an April 1 phone interview. “Clearly (major retailers) have the resources to determine whether that is or is not the case, but we’ve never seen any evidence to that effect brought forth. So it’s just been alleged.”

Regarding e-cigarettes, Blumenfeld said that the vaping devices should be included in any purchasing-age ordinances even if there is not enough data to suggest they are a gateway to regular cigarettes. She said that is because many contain nicotine in their e-liquid — the substance that is converted into the vapor users inhale — which is highly addictive. And even though people can buy e-liquid without nicotine, the GASP executive director said the substance is still known to contain harmful chemicals.

E-cigarettes are currently unregulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration so it is unknown exactly what ingredients are used in each brand’s products, though a laboratory analysis of two leading brands found detectable levels of carcinogens and toxins including diethylene glycol, an ingredient used in antifreeze. Also, a 2014 CDC study found that the number of poison center calls related to vaping devices containing nicotine increased from one per month in September 2010 to 215 per month in February 2014, though most involved young children swallowing the e-liquid.

Blumenfeld spoke about the benefits of increasing the tobacco-purchasing age to 21 during the Maplewood Township Committee’s March 15 meeting, though it is not clear whether the committee members will pass the proposed ordinance when it comes before them.

Before Blumenfeld’s appearance, the committee discussed the possibility at its Feb. 16 meeting. According to the minutes, Committeewoman India Larrier and Committeeman Marlon K. Brownlee both expressed support for the measure as a way of protecting the health of local youth. Committeeman Greg Lembrich said he would be interested in learning more about how increasing the age could impact health care costs, though he also wanted to know about the effect it could have on local businesses. Plus, Lembrich said he did not know whether he would feel comfortable restricting 19- and 20-year-olds from buying tobacco products as they are otherwise viewed as adults in the eyes of the law.