New Jersey may be second state to raise smoking age to 21

In this Tuesday, Dec. 29, 2015 photo, retailer Holy Smokes has signs posted around its entryway to alert customers to the state's new smoking laws in Honolulu. Hawaii is the first state in the nation to raise the legal smoking age to 21-years-old, for traditional and electronic cigarettes. The law goes into effect on New Year's Day. (AP Photo/Cathy Bussewitz)

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — New Jersey could become the second state to raise the smoking age to 21, as part of a movement that’s been spurred in part by a major study released last year and a sharp increase in electronic cigarette use among young people.

The state’s Legislature on Monday passed a bill that would fine retailers up to $1,000 if they sell cigarettes or other tobacco products, including e-cigarettes that are often called “vapes,” to anyone 20 years old or younger. The law wouldn’t punish underage smokers.

It’s unclear whether Gov. Chris Christie will sign it into law. He has until Jan. 19 to decide, and a spokesman declined to comment Tuesday on the governor’s intentions. In 2014, the Republican presidential candidate vetoed a bill that passed with overwhelming support to extend a smoking ban to parks and public beaches, saying local municipalities should be able to decide.

Hawaii became the first state to raise the smoking age to 21 starting Jan. 1, and similar measures have been introduced in eight other states and the District of Columbia. Federal lawmakers have also proposed a nationwide smoking age of 21.

“This is a tipping point,” said Rob Crane, president of the Ohio-based Preventing Tobacco Addiction Foundation, which supports the legislation. “The fact that New Jersey’s legislators were able to stand up to the tobacco lobby is a tribute to the leadership in New Jersey.”

Crane said that so far it’s been cities, not states, that have pushed the issue into the mainstream. New York City’s law took effect in August 2014 and Boston’s will change in February.

“Midwestern cities like Cleveland and Kansas City have also joined,” Crane said. “It’s not just an East Coast or West Coast issue.”

Lawmakers also cite a 2015 study from the National Academy of Sciences that found raising the smoking age to 21 would reduce rates among teens by 12 percent, preventing more than 200,000 premature deaths.

The report employed computer models and reviewed the impact of various age restrictions on tobacco and alcohol use in cities and countries across the globe. Another oft-cited survey showed an almost 50 percent drop in smoking rates among high school students in Needham, Massachusetts, a town of nearly 30,000 that raised the age in 2005.

Advocates also point to the spike in the number of teens using electronic cigarettes. California and Hawaii have reported huge increases, with the latter seeing the rate of middle schoolers using e-cigs jump from 2 percent in 2011 to 12 percent in 2014.

Moses Heberlein, a 20-year-old from Ewing, doubts the change in New Jersey will impact him. He started at 16, three years before the legal age. Raising it to 21 would fail to stop him.

“I’m sure there are places out there that wouldn’t question me,” he said. “There were places in high school that never carded.”

Veterans groups, including the American Legion, have also criticized such proposals, saying that service members willing to sacrifice their lives should have the right to choose to smoke. And some estimates predict that states like New Jersey will lose millions in tax revenue.

Carl Ortutay, who works at a tobacco shop in Lawrenceville, estimated that about a quarter of the shop’s clientele would be affected by the change.

“But if they’re going to smoke, they’re going to smoke,” he said. “Even if that means they’re going to illegally do it.”

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