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EDITORIAL: NJ giving up on smokers

Let’s just say New Jersey officials don’t care a whole lot whether kids in this state start smoking, or whether the ones who have ever stop.

That may sound a little harsh, but there seems little other way to interpret the fact that the state once again ranks dead last in the nation in spending on tobacco prevention.

The amount of money New Jersey devotes to the task? Zero. This is the fifth consecutive year the state has spent absolutely nothing to discourage smoking or encourage active smokers to quit.

New Jersey just seems to have a knack for ranking first or last in all the wrong categories.

For those thinking New Jersey just doesn’t have the money to spend, consider the state will take in more than $900 million in estimated tobacco revenue as part of the national 1998 settlement with Big Tobacco. The Centers for Disease Control and Protection annually recommend an amount that each state should devote to tobacco prevention programs. The recommendation for New Jersey in 2016 was $103 million. But not a dollar of that money has been set aside for tobacco prevention in the 2016 budget. Only Connecticut is similarly apathetic.

It’s also worth noting that Gov. Chris Christie has vetoed a proposal to raise the legal smoking age to 21.

To be fair, we can’t say lawmakers have completely dropped the ball in combating smoking. New Jersey continues to make inroads in curbing public smoking, this year pushing through enhanced restrictions on beaches and state parks. While that legislation didn’t go as far as anti-smoking advocates would have preferred, the new restraints represent another step in the right direction. Federally funded anti-smoking programs are also available in New Jersey.

Through it all, something seems to be working, even if more or less by accident. Smoking rates are declining across the country, and New Jersey is no exception, despite the absence of investment in prevention. Both youth (8.2 percent) and adult (15.1 percent) smoking rates in the state are well below the national average.

But advocates warn that the lowering rates are insufficient reason to ignore continued and aggressive prevention efforts. The Tobacco Free Kids Campaign estimates that nearly 12,000 deaths each year in New Jersey can be directly attributable to smoking — deaths that are essentially being treated as irrelevant from a policy perspective by scrapping all prevention spending.

That said, New Jersey shouldn’t feel obliged to simply pour money into random smoking cessation programs to create the impression of renewed interest in the issue.

Some programs have more value than others, and officials should at the very least identify one or two areas to which some funding can be effectively deployed. While we don’t see a need for the state to suddenly ratchet up its spending to the levels recommended by the CDC, it is more than reasonable to expect some funding to be directed to saving lives.

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