Council taking measures to make the cigarette an endangered species

Teens hoping to get a cigarette from a friend soon may see their chances go up in smoke, under a proposed ordinance before the Highland Park Borough Council.

The measure, which also would govern electronic smoking devices, would require any business that sells tobacco products to require photo ID for anyone younger than 26. In the case of Internet sales, buyers would be required to certify that they are at least 21 years old. The legal age to buy tobacco in New Jersey went from 18 to 19 years old in 2006.

The ordinance, which would raise the legal age to buy cigarettes in Highland Park to 21, was introduced with unanimous approval at the March 17, 2015 council meeting. The measure is due for a public hearing and final vote at the April 14 council meeting, 7 p.m.

“Do I believe that Highland Park businesses that sell tobacco products may lose some business? Yes, I do,” said Borough Councilman Josh Fine at the March 17 council meeting. “We need to consider the public health benefit of having teens not get addicted to tobacco while their brains are still developing.”

The genesis of the proposed ordinance is an ongoing initiative by the Highland Park Board of Health to reduce tobacco use throughout the community. A previous measure that banned smoking on borough property was aimed at current users; this measure is intended to discourage others from ever starting.

Studies conducted by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences indicate that most smokers begin their habit while they are teenagers, by getting cigarettes from friends who are old enough to buy tobacco for them. If the legal age is raised to 21,  access to tobacco has moved out of the younger set’s social network.

“That’s the idea, to try to reduce access to tobacco to younger teens,” Jesse Crosson of the Highland Park Board of Health. “The idea is that as people age, they are more able to identify risks and to control their impulses better.”

The Institute of Medicine also reports that by raising the legal age to purchase tobacco to 21 eventually would lead to a 12 percent decrease in the overall prevalence of smoking, with a commensurate reduction in smoking-related illnesses such as lung cancer and emphysema.

“If it were raised to 21 nationwide, there would be a reduction in 223,000 premature deaths nationwide over the next 30 years,” including 50,000 fewer deaths to lung cancer, said Dr. Crosson. “It’s pretty substantial, and the way that’s accomplished is just by getting people to delay their first exposure to tobacco.”

The federal government in the United States sets the minimum age for buying tobacco at 19 years old, but at a Highland Park Borough Council meeting in February, Borough Attorney Ed Schmierer advised council members that they had the authority to set a higher minimum age in the borough itself. Englewood and Sayreville already have done this.

There is of course nothing to stop a 19- or 20-year-old who wants cigarettes from crossing the Albany Street Bridge to buy tobacco in New Brunswick, or from picking up cigarettes or cigars at gas stations, supermarkets or drugstores outside Highland Park in the course of their daily business. That considered, Dr. Crosson still said he believes there is good reason to raise the age, whether the benefit is measured just in the added inconvenience or transportation cost for young smokers, or in the example Highland Park could set for other municipalities to pass similar laws.

“We’re planning to reach out to those other communities around us,” he said. “They have the same health concerns as we do, so I’m sure their boards of health will be interested.”

Introducing the ordinance Councilman Fine expressed a view that appeared to resonate with his colleagues on the council: “I would say making it less convenient for 19- and 20-year-olds to get cigarettes is a good thing.”

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