Why is Christie opposed to a beach smoking ban?

Bob Jordan, Asbury Park Press

TRENTON - When New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was a candidate for president, he spent weeks at a time in other states, where his stump speech frequently included stories about his mother's battle with lung cancer following decades of cigarette smoking that started in her teens.

Yet back home, Christie has dug in against legislation to institute a statewide ban on smoking at public beaches and parks. He vetoed such a bill in 2014. Lawmakers began advancing a reintroduced bill this week but there are few signs that Christie is ready to change his position.

There are a handful of smoke-free beaches and boardwalks in New Jersey. Jeff Tittel of the state Sierra Club says there should be more, citing impacts from second-hand smoke and litter.

“Our volunteers last year picked up over 7,000 cigarette butts just on the beaches in Ocean County,” Tittel told lawmakers at a public hearing Monday, before an Assembly panel voting unanimously to advance Bill A-893.

The measure would extend to parks and beaches provisions of the “New Jersey Smoke Free Air Act” prohibiting smoking in indoor public places and workplaces. The Senate is expected to introduce a counterpart measure soon.

On the Asbury Park Press Facebook page earlier this week, beach-goers were split on the issue.

“I will continue to smoke outside in public areas,’’ wrote Erin Arlenok. “No one around me has ever complained about second-hand smoke. I get there early, and if you see me smoking and you don’t approve, head down the beach a bit because I am going to continue smoking. I carry my butts out with me so what does it matter.’’

Jason McKinley said a ban is a good idea.

“Yay, we will no longer try to build a sand castle and find endless cigarette butts,’’ McKinley wrote. “They should have a designated area like in your car for smoking, you can leave your butts on the floor of your car.’’

A spokeswoman for Cathleen Bennett, Christie’s acting commissioner for the state Department of Health, said the smoking rate among New Jersey residents “is well below the national average,’’ and noted the state “uses more than $2.2 million in federal funds to offer services that focus on counseling for smokers who want to quit and for prevention of smoking by youth.’’

“The Department of Health strongly encourages everyone to quit smoking and there are many ways to do that including medication, patches, gum and counseling available through employer-sponsored health benefits, including Medicaid and the State Health Benefits Plan,’’ said spokeswoman Dawn Thomas.

The 2014 bill Christie vetoed had wide support in the Legislature. It passed 63-8-5 in the Assembly. No one voted against it in the Senate.

Christie ended his presidential campaign Feb. 10, the day after a dismal sixth-place finish in the New Hampshire Republican primary.

He made his first public appearance outside the Statehouse since the campaign ended Wednesday at a ribbon-cutting for a reopened Newark elementary school but evaded the media without taking questions.

Christie at a town hall last year — before launching his presidential campaign — said banning smoking at beaches could logically lead to government overreach, such as a ban on what beach chairs sunbathers can use.

“What I wanted was for each municipality to make that decision on their own,’’ Christie said of the beach-smoking ban. “Listen, I don’t like smoking either. I’m an asthmatic and so, personally, smoking irritates my heath in a significant way. I lost my mother to lung cancer, who was a lifetime smoker. I lost both my grandfathers to smoking-related cancer, one to lung cancer, one to esophageal cancer, so I understand the cost of this. Part of what I’m trying to avoid here is having the state make every decision and impose that on municipalities everywhere. I think people should have the right to make some of these decisions at the local level themselves.’’

What Christie didn’t mention: Since 2013, tobacco companies have given nearly $600,000 to state lawmakers of both political parties, an increase of more than 50 percent over the previous three years, according to campaign finance records.

Also, big tobacco companies gave more than $1 million to the Republican Governors Association in 2014, when Christie was chairman of the political group.

“It’s difficult to think there’s not a correlation between the contributions to the RGA and Christie’s position in 2014, especially with his unfortunate personal family experiences with smoking, and the pattern that he in general is a supporter of public health enhancements,’’ said Karen Blumenfeld, executive director of the New Jersey Global Advisors on Smokefree Policy (NJGASP) advocacy group.

“But that was two years ago. Let’s see what happens this time,’’ Blumenfeld said. “We’re hopeful of this bill becoming law.’’

The ban would not apply to a golf course, or to an area of a municipal or county beach, not to exceed 15 percent of the total area of the beach, which is designated by the municipality or county by ordinance or resolution as a smoking area.

The proposed law is designed to reduce exposure to secondhand smoke, litter and fire risks. Violators would be fined at least $250 for a first offense, increasing to up to $1,000 for repeated violations.

Christie in his veto message two years ago punted to local leaders, saying, “Too often, policy-makers at more centralized levels of government encroach into areas of public policy previously reserved for more localized governing bodies.”

Bill sponsor Valerie Vainieri Huttle, a Democrat from Bergen County, said, “Unfortunately we did aget a veto last time around. When we talk about the harmful effects of smoking and second-hand smoke, we”re also talking about keeping our pristine beaches and parks clean and litter-free.”