MONTGOMERY: Forum starts the conversation on nicotine addiction

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By Lea Kahn, Staff Writer
It only takes the blink of an eye to become addicted to the opioids in prescription painkillers, and just a little bit longer to become addicted to the nicotine in cigarettes.
That’s why the Montgomery/Rocky Hill Municipal Alliance and the Montgomery Township Health Department joined forces to present a special forum on nicotine addiction, which now includes e-cigarettes.
“This is the start of the conversation,” Montgomery Township Health Officer Stephanie Carey said. The focus of the forum was how to protect children from tobacco, vaping and other nicotine-laced products, she said.
Speakers ranging from Superintendent of Schools Nancy Gartenberg to Princeton Health Officer Jeff Grosser and Karen Blumenfeld of NJGASP – an anti-smoking organization – shared their perspectives and actions they have taken to stamp out tobacco use.
Gartenberg, the Montgomery Township schools superintendent, said she has been involved in efforts to make school campuses smoke-free. Soon after she arrived in Montgomery, she said, the school board approved a policy that banned e-cigarettes.
But as quickly as changes are made to tobacco-related policies, the tobacco companies respond by changing the name of the product and its packaging, and then marketing it to young people, she said.
E-cigarettes, for example, are billed as less harmful than cigarettes. They use water vapor and add flavoring to attract young people. They are described as an alternative to cigarettes.
Lately, overall tobacco use has declined and that’s one reason for the push toward e-cigarettes, Gartenberg said. Tobacco companies know that if they target a younger audience, they will have customers for life, she said.
Meanwhile, the school district is fully supportive of the Health Department’s efforts to prevent children from using tobacco products, Gartenberg said. The school district tries to educate the students about the dangers of tobacco and e-cigarettes.
And e-cigarettes are dangerous, said Grosser, the Princeton health officer. Although they are touted as a safer alternative to tobacco cigarettes, they contain an assortment of chemicals that are carcinogenic.
“We have no idea what is in e-cigarettes,” Grosser said.
The federal Food and Drug Administration does not regulate them, although their use among young people soared by 900 percent between 2011 and 2015, he said.
To combat cigarette use and nicotine addiction, Princeton instituted a ban on smoking out-of-doors in 2000, Grosser said. The tobacco companies sued the former Princeton Borough, and lost. The ban has been extended to public buildings.
More recently, Princeton adopted an ordinance that raises the legal age for purchasing tobacco products from 19 years old to 21 years old. State law sets the legal age at 19.
Princeton also adopted a licensing regulation for stores that sell e-cigarettes, he said. There were seven stores that sold e-cigarettes and now there are four.
Karen Blumenfeld, the keynote speaker and the executive director of NJGASP, encouraged efforts to limit young people’s access to tobacco products – including e-cigarettes.
That’s because smoking is the number one preventable cause of death, Blumenfeld said. She questioned how a product that is “designed to hurt you” could be allowed on the market.
Although battling tobacco companies might seem like an insurmountable task, it is possible to fight them and win, Blumenfeld said.
She pointed to East Brunswick Township, which initiated a ban on cigarette vending machines. The town was sued and initially lost the case, but prevailed when the lawsuit reached the New Jersey Supreme Court.
“It all starts on the local level,” Blumenfeld said.
Towns can go for the “low-hanging fruit,” she said. They can ban smoking in the parks, whether it is tobacco cigarettes or e-cigarettes. A dozen Mercer County towns have banned smoking in municipal parks.
The movement to restrict tobacco sales to those who are at least 21 years old is gaining ground, she said. It puts the burden on the shopkeeper, not the purchaser, to ensure that the buyer is 21 years old.
“You can make changes beyond your dreams. But remember, you will get opposition,” Blumenfeld said. Opponents will argue that an 18-year-old can join the military, but cannot buy a pack of cigarettes.
“If you are passionate about it, you will be successful in making Montgomery Township smoke- and tobacco-free,” she said.
Carey, the Montgomery Township health officer, encouraged attendees to speak to their children, their friends, their neighbors and Township Committee. But any proposed policies would not be presented to the governing body until fall, she said.
“When we work together as a community, that’s how we make change. May the conversation continue,” Carey said.