Smoking age will be 21 in NJ — so who’s helping 19-year-old quitters?
New Jersey already has one of the nation’s lowest rates of smoking, and the pending increase of the minimum age to buy tobacco products to 21 years old, taking effect Nov. 1, is expected to cut it further.
But what kind of help with quitting will be there for 19- and 20-year-old smokers who can no longer legally buy cigarettes? Gov. Chris Christie has vetoed a plan to increase cessation spending by $7 million, but the state Department of Health says it will be able to deal with any increase in demand.
“The Department of Health strongly encourages everyone to quit smoking and there are many ways to do that including medication, patches, gum and counseling,” said spokesman Donna Leusner. “The department strongly believes the governor’s actions are important to discourage and prevent young people from smoking.”
Leusner said New Jersey anticipates spending $11.2 million on anti-tobacco efforts in the budget year that started this month. That’s a mix of state and federal funds – more federal money than state, though an exact breakdown wasn’t available.
The funding includes $500,000 added to the budget by the Legislature in June, bringing total spending by the Department of Health to $4.5 million.
“The department has sufficient funding to assist smokers who want to quit. We will monitor the volume of requests for assistance and can reassess,” Leusner said.
The Christie administration projects that nearly $6.8 million will be spent in the coming year through FamilyCare and the State Health Benefits Plan on smoking cessation prescriptions and counseling, which would be an increase of around $1.5 million from what was projected for the past year.
Brian Shott, New Jersey director of government relations for the American Cancer Society, said the money is needed because it’s one of three things proven to cut smoking rates.
“We know what works in tobacco use prevention and cessation: The combination of significantly increasing tobacco taxes regularly, investment in tobacco prevention and cessation programs that use proven best practices and comprehensive smoke-free laws that cover all workplaces,” Shott said. “Unfortunately, it is in one of those three areas that New Jersey is lagging behind, and that is in dedicated state funding for tobacco control.”
Karen Blumenfeld, executive director of New Jersey Global Advisors on Smokefree Policy, which gets state funding to address disparities is smoking rates among minority populations, said in the short term, the increase in the smoking age is a step in the right direction.
“Let’s take things one at a time and celebrate today for Tobacco 21,” Blumenfeld said. “We do hope that there will be in the future funding for prevention of the No. 1 cause of preventable disease and death.”
New Jersey has the third-lowest rate of adult smoking in the United States, 13.5 percent. Its youth smoking rate is 8.2 percent – even with a smoking age of 19.
The state’s NJ Quitline counseling service – (866) 657-8677 – offers callers a free, two-week supply of nicotine patches. Last year the Quitline got nearly 15,000 calls, and 4,300 got counseling and patches.
People can also get support in quitting by signing up for the Smokefree Teen text message program, available as an app or at teen.smokefree.gov, which provides encouragement, advice and tips though phones and smartphones.
The bill Christie vetoed, A3338, would dedicate 1 percent of revenue from the cigarette and tobacco taxes to Health Department anti-smoking programs. That would be nearly $7 million now but would presumably shrink as smoking rates decline.
Christie said he opposes supplemental spending in the middle of a budget year and through a conditional veto recommended starting the diversion in the 2018 budget adopted next summer – the first under the next governor, incidentally.
The state Assembly is planning to agree with Christie’s conditional veto in a Monday vote.