New Jersey Assembly Higher Education Committee votes to approve measure that would ban use of all tobacco products, e-cigarettes in outdoor areas of college campuses; such products already prohibited indoors

, May 9, 2014 () – College students in New Jersey, already banned from smoking in their dormitory rooms, also wouldn't be able to walk out onto the quad to have a cigarette under a bill advancing in the state Assembly.

The Assembly Higher Education Committee yesterday voted 4-3 to approve the measure (A1978), which would ban the use of all tobacco products -- already prohibited indoors -- in outdoor areas of college campuses.

Advocates said the bill would give New Jersey the strictest college campus smoking ban in the nation because it includes all tobacco products, including those sniffed and chewed, as well as electronic cigarettes.

"Ninety percent of persons who start smoking, they do so before the age of 21," said Assemblywoman Celeste Riley (D-Cumberland), the bill's sponsor. "Most students enter college around 18. If they're influenced by friends, this is where they're starting."

The bill comes as New Jersey officials are trying to strengthen the state's anti-smoking laws, which are already stringent. In March, the Assembly passed a bill that would ban smoking at all public parks and beaches.

As recently as Tuesday, Belmar -- a popular tourist destination that had allowed smoking in some areas -- banned it on its beach and boardwalk.

Still, the fate of the measure before the Legislature is uncertain. The three Republicans on the Assembly panel voted against the bill, and the Senate has not yet taken it up. Nor is it clear whether Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, would sign the bill if it crossed his desk.

And on college campuses in the state, the reaction was decidedly mixed.

Fines for those caught violating the ban would start at $250 for a first offense, $500 for a second offense and $1,000 for each subsequent violation.

Seventeen New Jersey colleges or universities already ban smoking anywhere on campus, according to the American Cancer Society, and at least 23 prohibit it in most places on campus but allow it in designated areas.

Ethan Hasbrouck, state advocacy director for the American Cancer Society, said 1,343 college campuses nationwide have gone smoke-free. While three states have banned smoking at all public colleges and universities, only one, Iowa, has banned it at public and private schools, though the prohibition is not as inclusive as the measure proposed in New Jersey.

"This is a real opportunity for all New Jersey colleges and universities to work together to support the health of their campus," Hasbrouck said.

But on the Rutgers-Newark campus last night, some students said they thought the proposed law was overstepping its bounds.

Luis Soriano, 24, who smokes a pocket, electronic hookah, suggested that campuses and their communities would be better served by designating smoking areas.

"It's not an illegal choice," said Soriano, a former Bergen Community College student who hopes to attend Rutgers. "It shouldn't be penalized in such a harsh way."

Ryan Gormley, a 20-year-old finance major who runs long-distance on the varsity track and field team, said the measure was a misguided government attempt to legislate behavior.

"Everything is bad for you, apparently," said Gormley, a non-smoker. "If it bothers you, stay away. ... Government is overstepping its bounds."

And Michael Zajac, a 20-year-old accounting major who smokes electronic cigarettes, said he would be "severely disappointed" if the bill was signed into law.

"Why? Is it really bothering anybody?" Zajac said of electronic cigarettes. "Why ban something that's helping people quit?"

Riley, the bill's sponsor, had been unclear at first as to whether electronic cigarettes were included in the legislation.

But Hasbrouck advised the committee that they would fall under the bill's scope.

Assemblyman Gregory McGuckin (R-Ocean) said he liked the idea, but thought that banning electronic cigarettes, known as e-cigarettes, was a "bridge too far."

Assemblyman Thomas Giblin (D-Essex) said that even though he supported the bill he would like to see electronic cigarettes exempted.

The safety of e-cigarettes, which deliver nicotine in the form of water vapor, has become a controversial issue. Advocates of the product say it's a safer alternative to smoking, while many anti-smoking advocates say the cigarettes, a relatively new product, have not been studied enough to know their effects on people's health.

Matt Friedman: (609) 989-0324 or mfriedman@starledger.com

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