The minimum age to buy or sell tobacco products and electronic cigarettes in New Jersey is 19. Several lawmakers from both political parties said that was not old enough and they’re leading the charge to increase the age. There are critics and opponents, but the movement took another step forward Thursday.

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“Ninety-five percent of adult habitual smokes started before the age of 21 and the National Institute of Health also says that banning cigarettes before 21 obviously can save lives,” said Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Englewood).

More than 100 cities across the country have raised the age to 21, but so far only Hawaii has done it on a statewide level. Vainieri Huttle said she hoped New Jersey could soon be the second. Bi-partisan legislation (A-3254) co-sponsored by the assemblywoman was approved Thursday by the Assembly Health Committee. An identical bill (S-602) already passed the full State Senate.

“We’re trying to change the culture here of our youth and we’re trying to adopt a smoke-free, healthy lifestyle policy in the State of New Jersey. Banning the sale of cigarettes and other tobacco products for people under the age of 21 seems to be a growing trend around the nation,” Vainieri Huttle said.

Opponents said increasing the legal age to buy tobacco products and e-cigarettes would hurt small businesses like convenience stores. A spokesman representing e-cigarette sellers had another issue.

“We’re opposed to the inclusion of electronic cigarettes,” said Rich Levesque with the New Jersey Vapor Retailers Coalition. “We feel that there’s an inherent health benefit of electronic cigarettes compared to combustible cigarettes, traditional cigarettes.”

E-cigarettes have far less carcinogens than traditional cigarettes said Levesque and could help some young people kick the habit of smoking regular cigarettes.

“We think that anybody between the ages of 19 and 20 should also be able to benefit from getting away from combustible cigarettes and going toward electronic cigarettes and hopefully try to quit smoking altogether,” Levesque said.

Other critics said if the minimum age was raised to 21 the state would lose almost $20 million in sales tax revenue, Vainieri Huttle said that would easily be made up by having to spend less on health care if fewer people were smoking or using any tobacco products.

Kevin McArdle has covered the State House for New Jersey 101.5 news since 2002. Contact him at kevin.mcardle@townsquaremedia.com. Follow him on twitter at @kevinmcardle1.

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