(Trenton) – It was Lame Duck 2005- 2006 and the lefty blog-site BlueJersey was in full flight. I was their newly installed state house correspondent with ambition and naivety to burn. NJ’s smoking ban was about to happen which, in retrospect, was the first NJ political thing I ever wrote about.
I’d endured America’s first smoking ban in California in 1998 and apparently whatever I had to say was worth sharing because BlueJersey founder Juan Melli invited me to join after reading my reportage. Banning smoking in public places felt radical at the time and I was happy to remind the world that it’s gonna be fine, that restaurants will thrive and (most importantly) people will smoke less.
But the legislation was flawed. I should have been furious about the carveouts that permitted smoking in casinos in Atlantic City, an exception that persists nearly 14 years later. I was naive and so those carveouts felt like pragmatism, a comprise to get tough legislation over the line as the lameduck session was winding down.
But it wan’t pragmatic to sacrifice the health of casino workers for an entire generation. It was disgraceful, pure and simple. But I was new so the lawmakers whose votes hinged on those carveouts got a pass.
Exemptions for measles vaccines for NJ pupils is the most contentious debate I’ve witnessed in my career. When it comes to vaccines, I listen to my doctor.
But that’s not good enough for a growing number of parents who read something on the internet and subsequently dedicated themselves to a vaccine-free lifestyle.
I’m not sympathetic to religious exemptions bucking the scientific consensus on public health. I’m not a religious man and, homosexually speaking, I’ve had my quota of people citing God for how it’s gonna be for the rest of us.
Roughly 1,000 anti-vaccine advocates descended on Trenton on Monday, the last day of the lame duck session. That spooked NJ lawmakers into punting on legislation making it harder to get religious exemptions from the measles vaccination before entering school. Medical exceptions were permitted under the legislation.
The anti-vax types I briefly mingled with were animated by a degree of certainty that’s uncommon in Trenton and frankly in life. They have no doubt whatsoever about the righteousness and the rightness of their cause to not vaccinate their family. It’s a self-assurance that I, someone who’s often crippled with self-doubt, simply can not fathom.
I believe vaccines save lives. I reject the notion that vaccines are part of a conspiracy between the US Government, Centers for Disease Control, and big Pharma to get rich by harming people. (see pic) So unlike the thousand or so anti-vaccine enthusiasts on the statehouse lawn, I was sad to see the bill flame out in the NJ Senate. But even if it did pass, it was some seriously flawed legislation.
The carveout in the bill that exempted private schools from the measles requirement was a disgrace. The private school amendment was an added inducement to coax a YES vote from one or two fence-sitting Senators. But it backfired.
Because the private school loophole felt unfair. It was a carveout that, on a very contentious day, united a lot of disperate voices, including many who do choose to vaccinate.
Then and Now
In 2006, my first lame duck, lawmakers passed a smoking ban which, larded with loopholes for the mighty, permitted casino patrons to keep on smokin’. If you’re curious about the durability of an unfair loophole, consider NJ casinos which smell like an ashtray to this day despite tons of evidence that smoking indoors is bad for everyone.
In 2020, our most recent lame duck, a bill to eliminate religious exemptions from vaccines fell because loopholes infuriated and mobilized so many who’d previously been on the fence.
A safer fix
Samantha DeAlmeida is all too familiar with Trenton’s embrace of half measures, carveouts, and exemptions.
She’s the director of government affairs for the Cancer Society Action Network NJ. Ms DeAlmeida spent lame duck protecting kids from getting hooked on nicotine products. NJ is poised to ban the sale of flavored e-cigarettes thank to her efforts.
Ms DeAlmeida knows the contradiction of lobbying to outlaw menthol-flavored vaping widgets in a state which allows the sale of menthol cigarettes.
“Banning menthol E cigarettes while still permitting the sale regular menthol cigarettes will create a major health equity issue in New Jersey,” Ms DeAlmeida told InsiderNJ. “Flavors attract kids. Approximately 97% of young e-cigarette users use a flavored product. In addition, 54% of youth smokers who use combustible products use a menthol product.”
Ms DeAlmeida noted that menthol flavors have a cooling quality that numbs the throat makes it easier to inhale cigarette smoke. That’s a huge selling point to novice smokers.
And thanks to clever marketing my tobacco companies, the stigma surrounds cigarettes doesn’t exist with e-cig.
“I’m also an adjunct professor I see kids vaping in the back of my classroom,’ Ms DeAlmeida added. “When I talk to them, and these are kids who wouldn’t dream of smoking an actual cigarette, they just don’t equate e-cigs and cigarettes as both being tobacco products.”
That’s alarming. Are you alarmed?
From here it looks like half measures in Trenton allowed a mob of measles aficionados to prevail on a critical public health issue. Half measures by Trenton lawmakers permit the sale of menthol cigarettes, heavily marketed in black communities, despite tripping over themselves to ban menthol e-cigs.
A brand new legislative session kicked off yesterday. Issues like vaccines and vaping are still hot and relevant. Hopefully lawmakers, especially the new ones, are paying attention to the consequences of carveouts, loopholes, and half measures.
Jay Lassiter has been HIV+ for over 28 years and big-Pharma has kept his immune system intact the entire time. He cares about his health so he’s up to date with his vaccinations. Just like his mother taught him.