An initiative to raise the age at which smoking and tobacco products can be purchased in Maplewood from 19 to 21 has gained widespread support from the town’s elected officials.
Whereas in previous conversations, some members of the Township Committee expressed reservations around the change based on “personal liberty,” all five now seem poised to support such a law and have directed the Town’s attorney to draft an ordinance to be introduced in May.
(Editor’s note: Gov. Christie vetoed a statewide law to prohibit the sale of tobacco and e-cigarette products to those ages 19 and 20 in January. According to NJ.com, “the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services estimated the state would have lost as much as $16.2 million in sales tax by restricting sales to people 21 and over.” Read about it here. New York City raised the minimum age to 21 back in 2013; read about that here. )
The town leaders seemed swayed by the Town’s Health Officer Robert Roe and a representative from NJGASP who testified at previous meetings.
At the the April 19 Township Committee meeting, officials seemed particularly affected by a letter from an industry group — but not in the way that the group intended.
The letter from the President of the New Jersey Food Counsel (read the full letter below) — a trade association representing convenience stores, independent grocers and super markets — cautioned the TC that the change would hurt struggling businesses and that “adult customers” would take their business to neighboring towns and Maplewood businesses would lose “ancillary” sales of items like coffee and sandwiches. The Counsel also said it was unfair that penalties were typically only assigned to businesses and not to the customers violating the laws. Finally, the letter urged the town to wait for the results of a U.S. Food & Drug Administration study on the impact of raising the age for the purchase of tobacco and electronic cigarette items.
“We have heard strong opinions on both sides,” said DeLuca after the letter was read.
Committeeman Greg Lembrich said, “It’s a difficult issue for me because two things I place great value on are in conflict — public health and … personal liberty.”
“I certainly support moving forward for drafting the ordinance and bringing it up for public discussion,” said Lembrich. “I can’t promise I’ll vote for it but I’m inclined.” Lembrich also said he was not swayed by the Counsel’s argument to wait for a federal study, basically saying the argument was a transparent effort to stall change.
Deputy Mayor Nancy Adams said she was initially opposed to the increase in age, “however the difference in this one is the ability for older teens to purchase cigarettes because they can pass for 19. It’s more difficult to pass for 21,” said Adams, who said that raising the age to 21 “will hopefully lessen number of 14 and 15 year olds purchasing cigarettes.” Adams noted studies pointing to teenage years as a key time when addictions are fostered.
Adams added, “I’m not swayed too much by the letter the mayor read. I don’t think it’s all that complicated. I would tend to support raising it to 21.”
Committeewoman India Larrier noted that when the age was raised to 19, “We pretty much heard the same thing — that business would be irreparably harmed — and we pretty much haven’t seen that happen.”
She also pointed out that the NJ Food Counsel hurt its own argument by explaining that “more and more towns are adopting these ordinances.” Said Larrier, “So my vision is that it’s not a patchwork … at some point the entire state will be at 21.”
Committeeman Marlon K. Brownlee was withering in his comments: “As I’ve said previously I have no problem opposing something that is of no human benefit.” He also scoffed at the NJ Food Counsel’s use of “antiseptic terms” like “ancillary costs.”
“I’m sorry, but I’m just not sympathetic that we are denying somebody the right to profit off the chemical dependence of another.”
Mayor Vic DeLuca agreed: “If we can increase [the age] we are doing the right thing.” DeLuca also noted that the Food Counsel’s point that “people will walk and go to the next town” solidified his thinking that this “is the reason to continue to advocate for statewide law.”
“I’m disappointed in the Food Counsel,” said DeLuca. “Why not embrace a state law?” The Mayor said he was very much in favor of raising the age to 21 and wanted to take the local ordinance “to the state level and the Governor and ask them to consider it.”
DeLuca then directed Township Counsel Roger Desiderio to draft an ordinance for introduction at the Township Committee’s on May 3, with a second reading and public hearing on May 17.