A kick in the butt

Bayonne wants citizens to just say no to nicotine

Slowly but surely, smoking is being normalized.
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Slowly but surely, smoking is being normalized.

Smoking is a public health issue that affects people in every town in the world. The goal of public health officials worldwide is to encourage citizens not to smoke.

In Bayonne, the city council is passing an ordinance to limit smoking to 20 feet from a public building, up from 10 feet, and to prohibit the sale of tobacco products to people under 21. That wasn’t Bayonne’s idea. City officials are simply coming into compliance with recently passed legislation on the state level.

Gov. Phil Murphy signed legislation in January that outlaws smoking cigarettes, cigars, and pipes, as well as vapes, and other smokeless tobacco devices, in public parks, forests, historic sites, and other state-owned property. The law also applies to beaches and boardwalks. One of the most extensive tobacco-use bans in the nation, the law fines violators up to $1,000.

Treated on the state level as more of a criminal than public health issue, the effort raises the question: How can local and state governments and school districts help people who smoke to satisfy their nicotine addiction and prevent future nicotine addictions? To answer that question, you have to know who’s smoking.

Gotta light?

About 14 of every 100 adults, 34.2 million Americans age 18 and older, currently smoke cigarettes. This accounts for one in five deaths, according to 2017 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. People who use vapes, or e-cigarettes, according to the CDC, may be more likely to smoke cigarettes in the future.

The likelihood of someone being a smoker increases with older age, except for people 65 and older. People of color are more likely to smoke. For various reasons, non-Hispanic Native American people are most likely to smoke. Tobacco is native to the Americas and is used ceremonially in Native American communities. It wasn’t until tobacco was industrialized, pre-rolled, and sold in convenient packs of 20 at low cost did it become a public health crisis in those communities. But only about 66 Native Americans live in Bayonne, according to U.S. Census data.

Smoking is most prevalent among people with relatively low incomes but is more likely in communities of color. Bayonne has a significant population of middle-aged, low-income people, the population most at risk, and with the fewest resources for smoking cessation programs.

Before it’s too late

Whether restricting people from smoking within a certain distance of public buildings will help those people stop smoking is questionable. People who smoke may simply avoid areas where they are likely to be caught.

Raising the age to purchase cigarettes to 21, however, has proven to reduce the likelihood of young people starting to smoke. U.S. high school students are smoking cigarettes at the lowest rate since the CDC started keeping track in 1991, 10.8 percent, compared to 1997, when 36.4 percent of high school students smoked cigarettes. Still, in 2018, about seven of every 100 middle school students and about 27 of every 100 high school students reported the current use of a smoking product, which includes e-cigarettes, cigars, plant tobacco, and hookahs. This statistic may reflect the common combination of marijuana and tobacco.

Raising the cost of cigarettes has also discouraged young people from buying them in the first place. Unfortunately for many older people who smoke, it has simply raised the economic cost of their addiction.

I’m just vaping!

Vaping is marketed as a healthier, and tastier, alternative to cigarettes. That may be true, but not enough studies have been done to draw conclusions. Meanwhile, the number of middle and high school students using e-cigarettes rose from 2.1 million in 2017 to 3.6 million in 2018.

That’s why the Bayonne school district updated its policy in May of 2018 to include vaping. No smoking of any kind is allowed on school grounds. Fifteen administrators patrol the grounds during arrival and dismissal to help enforce the policy.

“[Students use e-cigarettes] feverishly because of the flavors,” said Interim Superintendent Michael A. Wanko. “I could see how this would be the case to make it an easy transition [to cigarettes]. Smoking is bad for everyone, not just kids. We address this in our health class. It’s part of our curriculum. The kids aren’t trying to do it on school grounds because they’ve been educated to that particular policy. If you see an adult anywhere in the area, you’re not going to try that.”

The irony that marijuana is gaining public support for legalization, while smoking continues to be demonized is not lost on the public.

“So I can smoke weed, but not cigarettes? I’m pretty sure smoking weed isn’t good for your lungs, either,” said Michael, a junior at Bayonne High School, who asked to remain anonymous. He doesn’t smoke cigarettes, but he does vape. He said he likes the flavor, and that he has used it on campus while adults aren’t around. The smell dissipates much faster than cigarette smoke, so it’s easier to get away with.

“I know I shouldn’t do it,” Michael said. “It’s probably not good for me. But it tastes good.”

Show me the healthcare

The other irony in the smoking debate is that governments are quick to make laws to discourage people from smoking but slow to ensure those most vulnerable to smoking, the poor, have the resources to quit.

“I’ve tried quitting more times than I can count,” said Marcus Coleman, 52, who receives disability insurance. He said that the disability benefits he receives are barely enough to cover his rent-controlled apartment. To quit smoking, he figures, he would need some medical help. His insurance covers consultations but not the cost of medication he would need to quit.

“It’s just stressful to think about,” he said. “So I don’t think about it.”

For updates on this and other stories check hudsonreporter.com and follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter.com. Rory Pasquariello can be reached at roryp@hudsonreporter.com.