New Jersey Could Light Up States' Push to Raise Smoking Age to 21

Efforts to raise the legal smoking age to 21 have been limited to the local level so far, but New Jersey could be the first state to change that.

There’s an effort underway to make it illegal for people under the age of 21 to buy cigarettes. Like the movement to ban smoking in public places that started more than 30 years ago, early successes have been limited to the local level. But the movement may soon see some success in the states.

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No state has raised the smoking age to 21, but New Jersey is now closer than any other before it. A bill banning the sale of cigarettes to people under 21 is now awaiting a hearing in the state Assembly’s fall term after passing the state Senate 22-10 in late June. Democratic state Sen. Richard Codey, the former New Jersey governor who banned smoking in a number of places and raised the legal age to 19, said he’s confident it will pass.

“Big Tobacco is going to try to stop it,” he said. “I understand that they haven’t been successful [so far] and they will not be.”

Gov. Chris Christie hasn't said whether he would sign the bill if it passes. But if approved, New Jersey would join New York City -- which approved an age increase last year -- and a smattering of other cities and counties. Advocates generally credit Needham, Mass., as being the first to raise the smoking age to 21 back in 2005. Since then, the smoking rate among adults in the Boston suburb has fallen to less than half of the statewide rate of 18 percent.  

The argument for raising the smoking age is simple: 95 percent of smokers started before they were 21, so making it more difficult to start theoretically means less of them will ever pick up the habit. Anti-smoking advocates often note that even tobacco companies themselves have said it becomes increasingly less likely that a person will become addicted to cigarettes as they get older. 

With that logic, a number of localities and states (including Alabama, Alaska, New Jersey and Utah) have already raised the legal age to 19. But Utah -- the state with the nation's lowest smoking rates -- rejected an effort this year to jump to 21. Opponents argued it would redefine what constitutes an adult in a country that allows 18-year-olds to vote, buy property and fight in wars.   

But Codey and other advocates argue that there's no upside to allowing people to smoke at a younger age and point to other instances where age limits are in question. For example, people question whether 16 is too young for teenagers to drive, as they’ve shown a higher incidence of traffic accidents. Codey said the same idea applies to young smokers who are placing themselves at higher risk of maintaining a bad habit.

New Jersey state Sen. Richard Codey (AP/Mel Evans)

Utah wasn’t alone in rejecting a bill to raise the smoking age to 21 this year. Efforts to raise the smoking age fell short in Colorado, Hawaii, Maryland and Massachusetts even though localities in both Hawaii and Massachusetts have already raised the smoking age to 21. Honolulu will consider a similar move in August.

Stanley Chang, the councilmember sponsoring Honolulu's bill, said there’s plenty of precedent for localities in Hawaii taking action before the state -- particularly in the area of smoking. Two islands banned smoking on beaches while a measure to outlaw smoking on public beaches hasn't moved far in the legislature, and another four islands banned plastic bags before the legislature enacted a statewide ban this year.

“In many different cases, the state has either taken action or not taken action and it’s been the counties that have been picking up the slack,” Chang said. “It can be easier to generate support for these kinds of initiatives at the local level.”

The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids says it’s now jumping on the issue in statehouses, where the idea of raising the smoking age is just now starting to appear. Pete Fisher, the group’s president for state affairs, notes that previous waves of smoke-free activism began locally, and this one is no different.

“Once we had that momentum going, that critical mass, it moves to the state level,” he said. “I could see this issue moving like that.”

Chris covers health care for GOVERNING. An Ohio native with an interest in education, he set out for New Orleans with Teach For America after finishing a degree at Ohio University’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism. He later covered government and politics at the Savannah Morning News and its South Carolina paper. He most recently covered North Carolina’s 2013 legislative session for the Associated Press.