New Jersey lawmakers this week stepped up their focus on further restricting tobacco use in the state, as a Senate panel advanced plans to ban the sale of flavored e-cigarettes and the sale of any tobacco products in pharmacies.

The moves come on top of pushes to raise the minimum smoking age  and eliminate smoking in all but small sections of public beaches and parks. And one of the latest bills might be expanded further to ban tobacco sales even in supermarkets with pharmacy departments.

The proposals, however, have received some pushback from lawmakers who think the new rules may be a nanny state overreach.

The e-cigarette ban inspired two hours of testimony in the Senate health committee Monday, from advocates who say flavored e-cigarettes are a way to lure kids to critics who said a ban would make it harder for cigarette smokers to switch to an option that helps them quit.

Corinne Orlando, the government relations director for the American Heart Association, said the Food and Drug Administration now has the power to regulate e-cigarettes, but it can’t ban flavors.

Orlando said seven in 10 middle and high school students who use tobacco use a flavored product and that it’s a gateway for a quarter-million children a year who never picked up a regular cigarette.

“E-cigarettes are offered in a variety of fruit and candy flavors that appeal to children. There are literally thousands of choices,” Orlando said.

“It’s just like cigarettes. Kids get their hands on them,” said Sen. Joseph Vitale, D-Middlesex. “So whether you’re a middle schooler or a high schooler, if it tastes like Gummi Bear or if it tastes like cotton candy or if it tastes like vanilla or something else, you’re much more likely to try it.”

Support for the bill wasn’t unanimous. State Sens. Diane Allen and Dawn Marie Addiego, both Republicans from Burlington County, voted against it, and state Sen. Robert Gordon, D-Bergen, abstained, citing concerns that it would cut off a path for smokers who quite by switching to e-cigarettes, which can have less to no nicotine.

“This legislation may be taking us down the wrong road,” Gordon said.

Olivia Watkins of Firehouse E-Cigs and Vapors in Cherry Hill, who herself quit smoking after 15 years by using e-cigarettes, called the proposal disheartening and said it would be setback to public health.

“I work every single day hand in hand with women, men, people who have smoked for 15, 20, 45, 55 years and have had no other way, none, to quit, other than to use flavored e-cigarette vapor,” Watkins said.

New Jersey was the first state to banned sale of the sale flavored tobacco products, in 2008.

Vitale said both proposals are about improving people’s health. He said pharmacies shouldn’t sell items that are addictive and perhaps ultimately fatal.

“I thought this would be a good statement to make,” Vitale said. “It’s not going to stop someone from smoking, but it kind of amuses me when I pull up to my local Walgreens and I see the tagline on the sign that says, ‘At the intersection of happy and healthy.’ I don’t know what’s happy or healthy about selling cigarettes.”

Orlando, of the American Heart Association, said that in San Francisco and Boston, where pharmacies have been banned from selling cigarettes, the number of tobacco users dropped by 5.5 percent, according to a preliminary study by CVS Health.

The bill might be changed to expand the prohibition beyond pharmacies to cover more retailers. Supermarkets would apparently be included if the bill is expanded, though Vitale said it wouldn’t cover big-box stores like Target or Walmart that sublet to pharmacies in their stores.

“You’re essentially making our retailers choose whether to have a pharmacy department or a tobacco section,” said Mary Ellen Peppard, assistant vice president of government affairs for the New Jersey Food Council.

“It is a legal product, and until which time it remains a legal product, they should have the option to sell it,” said John Holub of the New Jersey Council of Chain Drug Stores.

Not just with cigarettes, but a lot of the things that I do, I think we’re going too far with some of the regulations.

State Sen. Ronald Rice, D-Essex, said he isn’t sure he would support the bill if it’s expanded.

“That’s like saying they shouldn’t sell candy bars, either, because obesity’s killing us. And popcorn and potato chips,” Rice said.

“If you’re talking about kids, we can have that debate and I deal with it,” Rice said. “But the adult piece, we keep infringing upon, and decision-making is starting to reach a point where even as a Democrat, as liberal as I am, you’re starting to choke me. Not just with cigarettes, but a lot of the things that I do, I think we’re going too far with some of the regulations.”

Sens. Diane Allen, R-Burlington, and Robert Singer, R-Ocean, voted against the ban on cigarette sales in pharmacies. Singer said the Legislature shouldn’t be creating two classes of retailers.

“We keep limiting the rights of the public to make choices. These are about adults making choices,” Singer said. “I don’t smoke. I’m not a supporter of that. But I’ll fight for you to have the right to do something that’s legal.”

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Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for NJ 101.5 and the author of New Jersey: Decoded. Follow @NJDecoded on Twitter and Facebook. Contact him at