NEW JERSEY’S Senate approved a raise in the legal smoking age from 19 to 21 last week, pushing the groundbreaking experiment in public health one step closer to fruition. The bill, which the General Assembly will consider in the fall, would make New Jersey the first state to prohibit the sale of tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, to anyone younger than 21. It is designed to cut teenage exposure to tobacco, since about 90 percent of regular smokers have their first cigarette before turning 18. A few localities, such as New York City and the island of Hawaii, already raised the age.
Raising the smoking age eventually could cause a decline of 30 percent in adult smokers, according to one estimate, but whether it will have such a large effect in New Jersey remains to be seen. New Jersey’s current smoking age already prohibits virtually all high schoolers from buying cigarettes. Very few extensive case studies exist now, but the Food and Drug Administration is due to release a report on the effect of a 21- or 25-year-old smoking age next year.
There is no harm in trying. The experiment’s success could spur on the District, which has a similar bill in committee, and other states that are contemplating the move. The only way the measure can hurt is if it distracts policymakers from implementing more proven prevention strategies, such as higher taxes.
Despite New Jersey’s campaign against smoking, some key areas still need work. E-cigarettes, many of which contain known carcinogens and whose popularity has skyrocketed, are taxed at a low rate. The cigarette tax has not been raised in five years; New Jersey’s $2.70-per-pack tax lags behind that of eight states. Most troubling, none of the revenue from the tobacco tax goes to tobacco prevention efforts. One good start would be to pass a bill that would equalize the tax between tobacco products.
In early June, when the smoking-age bill was still in committee, state Sen. Ronald Rice Sr. (D) cast one of only two votes against it. “I’m getting tired of folk trying to tell adults what to do,” he said. But cigarettes, unlike some alcoholic drinks, have no health benefits and are destructive even in small doses. Exactly what New Jersey would be depriving its citizens of, besides a slow poison, is unclear.
Mr. Rice also argued that it was unfair to ban smoking for 19- and 20-year-olds who “can buy real estate, pay state and sales taxes” and join the military. There he has a point; there is no societal consensus about when a citizen reaches adulthood. Yet when urgent practical needs are balanced with theoretical inconsistencies, initiatives that save lives should take precedence. As New Jersey and other states battle their smoking crises, they should undertake initiatives both innovative and tested.