State Cracks Down on Young Who Use Tobacco and Liquor
TRENTON, Jan. 10 -- In a burst of prohibitive zeal aimed at New Jersey's youth, state lawmakers voted today to make it illegal for people under 18 to buy or possess tobacco products, or for those under 21 to drink alcoholic beverages on private property.
The under-age-drinking bill, which is supported by police and municipal officials throughout the state, would close a loophole that has made it difficult for the police to crack down on rowdy summertime house parties and backyard keggers at rental houses along the Jersey Shore.
But the tobacco ban is opposed by many police officials and most leading antismoking groups, who say it would achieve little and could even make smoking more appealing to rebellious teenagers.
The two bills easily passed both houses of the Legislature, but it is unclear whether they will be signed by Gov. Christine Todd Whitman.
The tobacco ban would subject people under 18 who are caught buying or holding any form of tobacco to a $25 fine, which would be refunded after they sat through an education program about the dangers of tobacco use. A violation would be considered a civil offense, like a parking ticket, but not a crime.
Proponents noted that the Legislature was in good company. Within New Jersey, at least 27 towns have some sort of ban on under-age smoking.
Nationwide, 29 states prohibit the purchase of tobacco by minors, 17 prohibit its possession and 12 states prohibit its use.
"You need to send a consistent message to minors that you shouldn't be doing this," said Assemblyman Guy R. Gregg, a Republican restaurant owner from Mount Olive who first proposed the ban.
"Think of the 15-year-old who goes to the 7-Eleven and buys some cigarettes from an 18-year-old friend," he said. "The 18-year-old gets caught, the store owner gets fined, he fires the 18-year-old perhaps, then the 15-year-old still has the cigarettes. He can smoke them and say, 'I didn't do anything wrong.' It's a mixed message for the kid."
But Larry Downs, the director of New Jersey Breathes -- a coalition of 45 antismoking groups, including the American Cancer Society, American Heart Association and American Lung Association -- said there was no evidence that bans of any kind reduced tobacco use by children and teenagers.
"We do know what does work, which is nothing short of a comprehensive, well-funded, sustained approach to tobacco control," said Mr. Downs, whose coalition is seeking $75 million for that purpose from New Jersey's share of the nationwide settlement of tobacco litigation.
In Washington, Matthew L. Myers, president of the National Center for Tobacco-Free Kids, said that tobacco companies supported such bans "because it transfers the responsibility for their wrongdoing to children."
A ban could actually be harmful, he said, "if people think that solves the problem."
"That's why the industry likes it," Mr. Myers said. "Politicians pass it, and say they're doing something about tobacco use among kids, and then they go home. In which case nothing gets done about tobacco use among kids."
Many local police officials in New Jersey oppose the ban, saying it would be impossible to enforce and would further alienate troubled young people.
"This is going to undo 15 years of community police work that we've done to build a rapport with the youth in our community," said Robert L. Herndon, the chief of police in Allendale and the president of the New Jersey State Association of Chiefs of Police. "The kids who are smoking, we know where they are. If we start enforcing this, they're going to move off Main Street, so to speak."
The ban on under-age drinking or possession of alcoholic beverages on private property, which excludes religious observances and drinking in the presence of a parent or guardian, carries a $500 fine and a six-month suspension of driving privileges.
Officials in resort communities along the Jersey Shore have lobbied for the ban for years. In Avalon, the police began raiding house parties and arresting large numbers of under-age drinkers a few years ago, but those efforts were stopped in the courts. Last November, the borough paid $1.5 million to settle a federal lawsuit brought by some of those who were arrested, said Mayor Martin L. Pagliughi.
The new bill passed in the Legislature would take the handcuffs off Avalon's police officers, Mr. Pagliughi said, adding, "This gives us the right to break up the party."