New Jersey lawmakers eye 21-plus smoking age. But is Christie on board?

The idea of increasing the legal age to purchase tobacco to 21 has been gathering momentum in communities across the United States, with many cities and towns adopting local measures. So far, Hawaii is the only state to adopt such a measure statewide.

Mel Evans/AP
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie arrives early at the Statehouse before delivering his State Of The State address, Tuesday, in Trenton, N.J.

New Jersey could soon follow Hawaii's lead in raising the minimum age to use tobacco to 21, if Gov. Chris Christie signs the bill.

The state’s legislature successfully passed a bill on Monday, that seeks to reduce underage smoking by fining retailers who sell cigarettes or other tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, to anyone below the age of 21.

Governor Christie has until January 19 to approve the bill, but it is unclear whether he will sign it into law. In 2014 the Republican governor vetoed a bill that banned smoking in parks and public beaches, saying local municipalities should be able to decide.

The idea of increasing the legal smoking age to 21 has been gathering momentum in communities across the United States, with many cities and towns adopting local measures. So far, Hawaii is the only state to make the 21-year-old minimum a statewide law, but eight states and the District of Columbia are considering similar legislation, as are some federal lawmakers.

“This is a tipping point, 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,” said Rob Crane, president the Ohio-based Preventing Tobacco Addiction Foundation, which supports the legislation, in an interview with the Associated Press.

Proponents of these measures allude to a 2015 National Academy of Sciences study showing that increasing the minimum age of legal access (MLA) to tobacco would reduce the number of early smokers and prevent smoking-related diseases. Public health experts see curbing teen smoking as a necessary measure to prevent addiction among adults. According to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies 90 percent of Americans who smoke daily begin before the age of 19, and are mostly introduced and supplied with cigarettes by their older peers. By increasing the legal age to 21 lawmakers aim to cut off teens' access to tobacco products.

Bolstered by success seen in places like Needham, Mass., where the rate of teenage smoking was reduced by half following implementation of a 21 smoking age, larger cities and communities have adopted their own measures. New York City’s law took effect in August 2014, and Boston is expected to follow suit in February.

But not everyone is happy with the idea of restricting the rights of people who are over the age of 18, and, in most contexts of the law, adults. Veterans' groups, such as the American Legion say that service members who are willing to sacrifice their lives should not be denied their rights to choose whether to smoke. Others contend that states will incur massive losses in tax revenue, if these laws become mainstream.

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

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