State Sen. Richard Codey, D-Essex, is a quirky guy. He's part classic North Jersey machine pol and part do-good reformer - he once posed as an orderly on the midnight shift at Marlboro Psychiatric Hospital to uncover conditions there.

And even when he served as governor for 14 months after Jim McGreevey resigned in 2004, if he didn't like an editorial about something he was doing, he'd pick up the phone and call the writer.

We suspect we'll be hearing from him today.

No doubt, Codey's proposal to raise the minimum age to purchase tobacco products to 21 represents the senator's do-good reformer side.

When he was governor, Codey signed a measure raising the age to purchase tobacco products from 18 to 19, making New Jersey one of only a handful of states with the higher legal age. No states currently set the legal age to buy cigarettes at 21, although it is under consideration in New York City, New York State and Texas, according to The Star-Ledger.

Nor is there any doubt that the world would be a healthier place - for smokers and nonsmokers - if fewer people smoked. Preventing young people from smoking is particularly important. The earlier a smoker develops the habit, the more susceptible he or she is to smoking-related diseases.

Furthermore, direct and indirect health-care costs related to smoking add up to $157 billion a year, according to statistics cited by Codey.

So there are lots of good reasons why young people should be discouraged from smoking.

Why, then, do we oppose Codey's proposal?

Well, because the law cannot - and should not be expected to - right every wrong in a society.

New Jersey's current law, and Codey's proposal, make it illegal for stores to sell tobacco products to underage individuals. Store owners face fines of $250 to $1,000 and can lose their licenses to sell tobacco if they are caught selling to people under the legal age.

But a state Health Department survey of 2,600 high school students in 2010 found that 14.3 percent described themselves as smokers - and 67 percent of the students who purchased their own cigarettes said they were not asked for identification.

A law that isn't working very well now certainly isn't going to work any better once the age is raised to 21.

More effective anti-smoking education programs and better public service announcements designed to grab the attention of young people are a better approach.

We have no problem with the state regulating where people can smoke - those restrictions are designed to protect nonsmokers. That's a reasonable public-policy goal - and those laws are effective.

Requiring people to be 21 to buy cigarettes, however, is government overreach, no matter how well intentioned.

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