N.J. bill: Can't smoke until 21
TRENTON -- If Assemblyman John McKeon has his way, many troops now fighting in Iraq couldn't smoke when they return home to New Jersey.
He and another Democrat, joined by anti-smoking advocates, have advanced a plan to raise the legal tobacco-purchasing age to 21 from the current 18.
"There are 6.4 million children today that will die today because of a choice they made about tobacco before they were an adult," McKeon, D-Essex, said in a Statehouse news conference when asked about troops serving in Iraq and young adults voting. "At least from my perspective, I don't see people have a right to smoke when they turn 18."
An increase in the minimum age is one aspect of anti-smoking efforts in New Jersey. Gov. James E. McGreevey has proposed hiking the cigarette tax for the second consecutive year to $1.90 per pack. It currently sits at $1.50.
In contrast, neighboring Pennsylvania taxes each pack just $1.00. Delaware's tax stands at just 24 cents per pack.
The bill is focused on merchants and does not create the crime of possession, an offense the state's drug and alcohol laws have. But it would prevent anyone under 21 from buying tobacco.
Those in favor of raising the age said 13,000 people in New Jersey die each year from tobacco-related illnesses, 90 percent of whom start under 18. Supporters contend the measure, which was originally introduced one year ago in the Assembly, would link drinking and tobacco use -- lending a more serious air to puffing "cancer sticks." By upping the age, said Assemblyman Joseph Cryan, D-Union, it will also remove tobacco from high schools.
Their logic: Clerks selling cigarettes are more easily fooled by a 17-year-old posing as somebody 18 than 21.
One Seton Hall University anti-smoking activist said the bill would prove a big benefit for young adults.
"At 18 years of age on my college campus I can knowingly purchase products that are harmful to me," freshman Anthony Romeo said. "It's one of the most effective ways to end underage tobacco initiation."
McGreevey has said he will review the legislation should it clear both houses of the Legislature.
Three states -- Utah, Alaska and Alabama -- set the legal age at 19. A similar proposal to raise the age to 21 died in California.
Such opposition has followed in New Jersey on several fronts.
Merchants have said it will cut into profits by sending young adults and underage smokers onto the Internet, an unregulated marketplace with no age verification and cheaper price tags. Lawmakers have said it impinges on the rights of adults.
Even the tobacco industry, long seen in many circles as the public health bogeyman, has not publicly opposed the initiative. Phillip Morris U.S.A. did not immediately return a telephone message.
Sen. Stephen Sweeney, an avowed anti-smoker and sponsor of other anti-tobacco bills such as one clamping down on tobacco sales in vending machine, said the law infringes on the rights of 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds.
"At 18 you can drive a car, go to war. They can make a decision about whether I'm a legislator or not. It's overkill. At the age of 18 they have the right to make the decisions for themselves," Sweeney, D-West Deptford said. "It's too much government."
Along with younger adults' rights, economics have played a large part in opposition to the bill.
The estimated 2,039 convenience stores in New Jersey sell approximately $335,000 per year in tobacco, according to the National Association of Convenience Stores. The retailers maintain higher taxes and more stringent controls could prove disastrous for some stores.
But one anti-smoking activist said the legislation is just one step.
"It's just part of the puzzle, a piece to a puzzle that must be broader than just" increasing the age limit, said Diane Litter, Executive Director of Prevention Links, a substance abuse education group.