New Jersey lawmakers took a few steps designed to make life a little tougher for smokers Monday, along with a plan to help them quit or avoid starting the habit.

Cigarette sales. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

Three committees advanced five tobacco-related bills – boosting taxes on things like cigars, raising the smoking age to 21, encouraging greater enforcement of bans on smoking in public places and spending millions a year on anti-smoking programs.

The ultimate fate of the package of ideas is hazy. Gov. Chris Christie vetoed the smoking-age increase two months ago, and he generally rejects tax hikes and supplemental spending. And the plan to revamp how towns levy fines for smoking in public stalled in the Assembly in 2014.

The bulk of the conversation Monday was about a proposal to triple the state tax on tobacco products other than cigarettes: 90 percent rather than 30 percent on things like cigars and pipe tobacco, or $2.25 an ounce, rather than 75 cents, on moist snuff used for dipping. E-cigarettes would not be affected.

Assemblyman Herb Conaway, D-Burlington, said the idea has two purposes – to raise the cost so that younger people already dissuaded by high cigarette prices don’t start smoking products like cigarillos instead and to generate tax revenue that can be used to fund anti-smoking programs.

“It’s Whack-a-Mole here and then it pops up someplace else in the use of other products,” Conaway said. “We’re going to whack them all down and protect our youth from the scourge of nicotine use.”

Ethan Hasbrouck, government relations director for the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, said New Jersey ranks last nationally in state spending on tobacco control programs – none, despite around $700 million in cigarette tax revenue.

“In fact, we are the only state in the nation to do that. We rank dead last. We’re the only state that receives money from revenues and does not spend a penny,” Hasbrouck said.

“The fact that we’re number one, at the bottom of the barrel, for not doing any education is really an embarrassment and has to be changed,” said Assemblywoman Nancy Pinkin, D-Middlesex.

Andrew Kerstein, owner of six Smoker’s Haven tobacco stores in Atlantic, Middlesex and Monmouth counties and member of the state chapter of the Association of Retail Tobacco Stores, said the increase in taxes would lead to a reduction in state revenues because people would buy online or from catalogs. New York lost revenue when it raised taxes, then regained it when it cut them, he said.

“This piece of legislation is not going to do anything to raise one dime of revenue,” Kerstein said.

Kerstein said stores would close due to a "floor tax" in the bill that would require retailers to pay taxes on whatever inventory it has in stock within three months of the law taking effect. He said he would owe $150,000 and wouldn’t be able to pay.

“It’s going to put almost every tobacco retailer in this state out of business,” Kerstein said. "You’re going to create vacancies in real estate in downtown communities all across this state and put hundreds if not thousands of local community people out of work.”

Conaway says any increases in revenues from the tax increase would pay for anti-smoking programs. A separate proposal that advanced Monday would add $7.56 million to the state budget for that purposes. Another would allocate 5 percent of all cigarette tax collections toward cessation programs – roughly $35 million a year.

“That clearly is too much to come out of the general budget,” said Assemblywoman Nancy Munoz, R-Union, who said former Health Commissioner Fred Jacobs has said $7.56 million is a good start.

Corinne Orlando, director of government relations for the American Heart Association, said the CDC recommends New Jersey spend $103 million on tobacco control programs.

“We know that that’s a very large number,” Orlando said. “We know that New Jersey has some budget issues that would not make that possible.”

Orlando said an appropriation of $30 million to $35 million would allow programs that have withered away to be restored. That would cut youth smoking rates by 6.5 percent, or 17,500 fewer kids getting hooked, and lead to $367 million less in future health care costs, Orlando said.

The proposal to raise the smoking age from 19 to 21 was endorsed by the Senate Budget Committee. Christie vetoed the bill in January after the Assembly approved it on the last day of the last session, but the governor didn’t give a reason. He has said he vetoed some bills because too many were sent to him at the last minute to receive full consideration.

One of the other ideas that advanced Monday didn’t make it to Christie last session.

The Senate health committee voted for a proposal that would let municipalities charge people with a civil offense carrying a $200 fine if they smoke in public places in violation of a local ordinance. Right now, such violations are a criminal offense that carry the possibility of a month in jail.

“The objective of this legislation is to grant municipalities greater discretion. I suspect it would lead to greater enforcement of prohibitions against smoking,” said Sen. Bob Gordon, (D-Bergen).

In 2014, the Senate voted 37-1 for the idea, but the legislation then didn’t budget for the next 18 months in the Assembly State and Local Government Committee.

Michael Symons has covered the Statehouse since 2000. He can be reached at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com or @MichaelSymons_ on Twitter.

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