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New Jersey may become first state to raise smoking age to 21

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New Jersey was the first state to raise the smoking age to 19, and now a bill would make it the first to raise the age to 21. (AP)

New Jersey would become the first state to raise the smoking age to 21 if a bill already passed in the state Senate becomes law. 

Though the measure is stoking some controversy in the Garden State -- and it's unclear whether the bill has the support to advance -- it marks the latest legislative push by anti-smoking advocates. 

New York City raised the legal age for lighting up to 21 last fall, and some smaller towns, including Englewood, N.J., and municipalities in Hawaii and Massachusetts have done so. But the measure passed by New Jersey's upper chamber would make it the first state to put the requirement on the books. Similar measures in Utah and Colorado died earlier this year. 

"We're very hopeful this will pass," Karen Blumenfeld, executive director of New Jersey non-profit Global Advisors on Smokefree Policy (GASP), told FoxNews.com. "It's a chance for policymakers to take the initiative to ensure that young people don't take up smoking, which is the No. 1 preventable cause of disease and death."

In 2006, the Garden State became the first to raise the age to 19, and lawmakers have already put a bill on Gov. Chris Christie's desk that would ban smoking in state parks and beaches. 

State Sen. Richard Cody, a Democrat and former acting governor, sponsored the measure last year, saying "I think we have to send a message to our young adults: To smoke is no joke." 

Under the proposed law, which passed the state Senate by a 23-10 vote, violators would be fined $500 for the first offense and $1,000 for subsequent offenses.

The NJ Gasoline-Convenience-Automotive Association opposed the legislation, claiming it puts the responsibility of complying with the law on its members, instead of underage buyers. Also critical of the measure was Audrey Silk, founder of New York City Citizens Lobbying Against Smoker Harassment (CLASH).

"I almost feel ridiculous restating the obvious," said Silk. "If you can go to war and get married and vote as an 18 year old, you certainly should be allowed to purchase cigarettes if you want.

"These are the same legislators who will go out and campaign to young people – believing they are smart enough to vote – but then argue they are not smart enough to make the choice over purchasing cigarettes," she added.

A similar bill has been introduced in the New Jersey Assembly, but it has not yet been brought to a vote. It is not clear whether Christie would back the new law.

"If the bill reaches our desk it will be reviewed in its final form, but otherwise [we have] no comment on pending legislation that still has many hurdles to clear before it makes it out of the legislature," Christie spokesman Kevin Roberts said.

Blumenfeld said a two-year hike in the smoking age would save lives.

"Those two years are exactly when youth and young adults are experimenting and may initiate smoking," she said. "Ninety percent of all people who smoke start to use tobacco before the age of 21."

The minimum age to buy tobacco products is 18 in all but four states. In addition to New Jersey, Alabama, Alaska, Utah and the District of Columbia all require buyers to be 19.