For years New Jersey was the epitome of states hypocritical about smoking.
Starting in 1998, it was entitled to $7.5 billion over the next 25 years from the massive federal corporate tobacco settlement. But instead of using that money as intended for smoking-cessation efforts, it put it into the general budget and spent it, starting with Gov. Jim McGreevey’s administration.
The settlement funds plus the state’s tax on tobacco products bring in more than $900 million a year. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended New Jersey spend $96 million to combat smoking — and it spent zero percent of that, putting it last among all states.
This is an easy act to follow for Gov. Phil Murphy. He has started with some good steps, but they seem low or no cost and it’s too early to gauge the policy turnaround.
He signed a bill last month banning smoking at public beaches and parks, a first for a state and presumably costing it almost nothing. But local laws already banned smoking in many of those places, and the new law allows municipalities to designate smoking areas, so in practice little may change.
Another change quickly followed, easing access to smoking cessation help for Medicaid enrollees in New Jersey. They could always get anti-smoking counseling and things like nicotine gum and skin patches, but starting immediately they can get it without a doctor’s approval under their managed-care plan.
This small improvement may help many, since 1.7 million are covered by Medicaid in New Jersey. Medicaid recipients smoke at higher rates — 33 percent compared to 17 percent for those in private health plans, says a University of California study. When New Jersey added more than half a million people to Medicaid the past few years, it more than doubled the number of smokers it insured.
Medicaid patients also, in January, will get access to federally approved group counseling sessions. That would be a new cost to the state, but it didn’t estimate how much.
Murphy’s actions are reminiscent of those of Gov. Chris Christie the year before. He signed a bill that in November raised the age for purchasing tobacco to 21 and another that started diverting as much as $7 million annually from tobacco tax revenue to smoking cessation efforts.
Past governors have been sharply criticized for spending little or nothing to combat smoking while the state rakes in hundreds of millions from the tobacco settlement and taxes. Sometime next year figures from the CDC and American Lung Association should make it clearer how much money Murphy has put into reversing that practice.