Lilo H. Stainton, NJ Spotlight

Last week, New Jersey was one step away from adopting what could have been the most comprehensive anti-smoking law nationwide and it’s likely to be at least 18 months before that opportunity arises again.

Advocates of a proposal to ban smoking at all public beaches, parks, and outdoor sites statewide said that while they are pleased Gov. Chris Christie agreed to block cigarette use on state-owned lands, a more comprehensive prohibition would have done much more to protect human health and the environment. But a full ban at county- and community-owned outdoor sites will have to wait for a new governor, they conceded. (Christie’s second term ends in January 2018.) 

The proposal – the latest attempt to expand a state law that now prohibits smoking in all public buildings – had bipartisan support in the Legislature and backing from a wide array of health advocates and environmental groups concerned about the impact cigarettes have on the environment and the fire hazard they cause. At least half-dozen states have laws or executive orders that restrict tobacco use in certain outdoor sites, but New Jersey’s proposal may have been alone in extending the ban to all state, county, and local properties, according to the American Lung Association, which tracks anti-smoking laws nationwide.

On Friday, Christie issued a conditional veto of the legislation (A893), noting that the state should not dictate how local communities use and police their public spaces. In years past, the Republican governor has vetoed similar plans entirely, without offering a compromise. The Legislature can either vote to accept his proposed changes, which limits the ban to state-owned property, or gather the majority of votes required to override the governor’s decision – something that’s proven extremely difficult during Christie’s tenure. 

“I was hoping that the outcome would be different this session,” said Deputy Assembly Speaker Valerie Vainieri Huttle, (D-Bergen), noting that polls show residents are supportive of a widespread outdoor smoking ban. “I’m not happy with the veto; I would think that every public beach and park should be afforded the same protections.”

A uniform policy makes more sense and protects residents equally, Vainieri Huttle said, and smoke-free beaches could have been a major selling point for the state. “We could have been a leader,” she added. “When a new governor comes in I’ll try again.” 

 Sen. Joseph Vitale (D-Middlesex), longtime chair of the health committee, agreed that approving the governor’s conditional veto was a practical move. “It’s a meaningful step for public health and fire safety,” he said, and municipalities can still adopt their own bans. “The Legislature can revisit the local and county elements under a new administration.” 

In his veto, the governor noted that he had nixed similar legislation in the past because he saw it as a “one-size-fits-all approach” that was an “inappropriate encroachment” on local decision-making. While the latest proposal permitted municipal officials to carve out up to 15 percent of the beach for smokers – as long as it wasn’t near a children’s area – it would have required towns to pay for and post no-smoking signs at park and beach entrances, or face fines if these were lacking. Christie suggested this was an overreach. 

“I abhor smoking. But I continue to believe that the State should not impose its will upon our local governments,” Christie wrote. Nearly 300 municipalities have already adopted local bans, he said, “and I expect that more will follow if it serves their particular needs.”

But John Weber, the mid-Atlantic regional manager for the Surfrider Foundation, worried about the confusion this could cause for beachgoers. Nobody lights up in restaurants anymore, he noted, because the public is clear that it is illegal. Smoking bans are “patchwork now, because a lot of towns have done this. And this just expands the patchwork.” 

“It’s a good first step, but a confusing step – it kind of clouds the air,” Weber added. “It would have been better if we went all the way.”