Hawaii will become the first state in the country to raise the smoking age to 21 from 18 in January.
Act 122, signed into law by Gov. David Ige, bans anyone under the age of 21 from purchasing tobacco products, as well as electronic cigarettes, which deliver nicotine through a vaporizer. The law also prohibits anyone under the age of 21 from using or possessing the products in public places.
“The longer you can delay someone from smoking, the odds increase that they will not become a lifetime smoker,” said Sen. Roz Baker (D, West Maui-South Maui), who introduced the measure.
Underage tobacco or e-cigarette users will be fined $10 the first time they’re caught and, for any subsequent offenses, fined $50 or required to perform 48 to 72 hours of community service.
Beginning in January, vendors will also be required to post signs informing customers of the age requirement. Vendors who don’t post the signs, or get caught selling to underage customers, will be fined $500 for the first offense and $500 to $2,000 for subsequent offenses.
Hawaii’s legislation follows similar laws that have been enacted in more than 100 cities and counties throughout the country, including New York City, Boston and Cleveland, according to anti-smoking advocacy groups. This includes Hawaii County, which raised the age to buy tobacco products to 21 in 2014.
At least two other states have considered statewide bans. California lawmakers were working on raising the smoking age to 21 earlier this year, but the measure stalled during the state’s legislative session, which ended in September. Massachusetts lawmakers are currently debating such legislation.
Health officials and anti-smoking advocates say that raising the smoking age to 21 will help prevent people from starting to smoke at a critical age.
The majority of adult smokers started when they were teenagers, according to the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy organization, which cites a 1986 report from Philip Morris to underscore the importance of the teenage market to the $100 billion tobacco industry.
“Raising the legal minimum age for cigarette purchasers to 21 could gut our key young adult market (17-20) where we sell about 25 billion cigarettes and enjoy a 70 percent market share,” Philip Morris wrote at the time.
In addition to the health risks of traditional tobacco products, Hawaii’s law is also aimed at curbing the growing number of teenagers in Hawaii who are using e-cigarettes.
Statistics from six local high schools found that
29 percent of ninth- and 10th-grade students have used e-cigarettes once and 18 percent use the devices regularly — a rate considerably higher than other states, according to Act 122.
E-cigarette sellers say that their products are similar to smoking cessation devices, such as nicotine gum, and a safe way for smokers to wean themselves off cigarettes. The “vaping” devices contain nicotine, but lack the hundreds of chemicals contained in tobacco smoke, a leading cause of cancer.
However, the companies have used marketing techniques and created products that critics say are clearly aimed at getting teenagers hooked on nicotine.
This includes e-cigarettes that come in flavors such as “citrus bombshell,” “cool bliss” and bubble gum — “don’t worry, the excitement can’t pop or get stuck in your hair!” one manufacturer writes in an ad. The devices are also sold in bright colors or under names that can be deceiving, such as e-Hookahs or e-Pens.
Health officials worry that the devices are not only getting teenagers addicted to nicotine, but also increasing their likelihood of smoking cigarettes.
Hawaii’s new legal smoking age has its opponents, including critics who say that, as with alcohol, people should be able to make their own decision about whether to use tobacco when they legally become an adult at 18 — and they note that at 18 one can join the military.
The legislation was opposed by Volcano Fine Electronic Cigarettes, a major Hawaii manufacturer and retailer of vaping products.
The bill “exempts traditional (nicotine replacement therapy) products that contain nicotine even though electronic cigarettes are being shown to be a much more effective tool for helping people quit smoking and have been demonstrated to have a similar risk profile,” wrote Scott Rasak, the company’s vice president.
Another law targeting the use of e-cigarettes will also go into effect in January. Act 940 prohibits the use of electronic smoking devices in areas where cigarette smoking is already banned, such as state parks and beaches.
Hawaii’s new law raising the legal smoking age to 21 has garnered national attention, with anti-smoking advocates heralding it as a model that other states should follow. In September, U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz introduced federal legislation that would raise the legal age to buy cigarettes to 21 nationwide.
Nationally, raising the smoking age would prevent an estimated 223,000 premature deaths, including 50,000 deaths from lung cancer, among people born between 2000 and 2019, according to a recent study by the Institute of Medicine.
“Raising the smoking age to 21 really is a big deal and not just for the anti-smoking advocates,” said Baker, the state senator who introduced Hawaii’s law. “It’s a big deal for everyone if they stop and think about it.”