The 21st birthday milestone will soon evolve for Hawaii residents. It will not only mark the day they’re legally allowed to purchase alcoholic beverages, but tobacco products as well.
On June 19, Gov. David Ige signed Act 122, making Hawaii the first state to prohibit the sale, purchase, possession and consumption of cigarettes, other tobacco products and electronic smoking devices to anyone under 21. The law will go into effect on Jan. 1, 2016, according to a press release from the governor’s office.
“Raising the minimum age as part of our comprehensive tobacco control efforts will help reduce tobacco use among our youth and increase the likelihood that our keiki will grow up to be tobacco-free,” said Gov. Ige in the press release.
According to studies done by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 4.6 million students reported being current tobacco users between 2011 and 2014, and roughly half those students reported using electronic smoking devices. That means that one in four high school students and one in 13 middle school students are current users of tobacco products. Although the prevalence of tobacco use has been declining in Hawaii since 2000, the Hawaii Tobacco Prevention and Education Program (HTPEP) says the additional laws will help bring this rate down even more.
Lila Johnson, program manager for HTPEP, said she’s thrilled that the law has been passed.
“It’s a very important law because we’re going to be able to protect the young people from access to tobacco,” Johnson said. “It removes anybody who is of tobacco-buying age from the high schools… because we learned that most young people get their tobacco products from a social source.”
Johnson said it’s important to prevent people between ages 18 and 21 from smoking tobacco because it’s at this age where experimentation can manifest into regular habits.
“This is still a developmental stage and risky behaviors are most tolerated during adolescence,” Johnson said. “Thinking becomes less concrete and more abstract, so not having nicotine or tobacco has seemed to be a very positive strategy.”
The studies conducted by the CDC have shown that nicotine exposure during adolescence can negatively impact brain development, cause addiction and lead to persistent tobacco use.
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Now that the law has been passed, the HTPEP will begin preparing and distributing signs to businesses that will inform the public of the law.
“All merchants will have signs at the sales point indicating that they cannot sell to anybody under the age of 21,” Johnson said. “We’ve also begun speaking with the police departments because they’ll be the ones enforcing the law.”
Johnson said that Hawaii is proud to be able to put this law into effect, especially due to the amount of support it has received from the public.
“What was really important were all of the young people that came out and supported it,” Johnson said. “There were a number of high school and college students who spoke to legislatures and demonstrated because they wanted the protection. Those are the people who it will impact the most, so it was really gratifying.”
But not everyone is looking forward to the changes that are being made, such as 18-year-old Dominick Haney, who blew out a puff of cigarette smoke as he contemplated the new law.
“21 and over for smoking cigarettes is a little outrageous because that’s pretty old to decide to smoke,” Haney said. “I started smoking when I was 10 and everybody that I know who smokes started when they were even younger.”
According to data provided by the HTPEP, Haney is part of the majority because nearly nine out of 10 smokers began before the age of 18. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported that 90 percent of adult smokers began in their teens, or earlier, with two-thirds of that group becoming regular, daily smokers before they were 19 years old. And once someone starts smoking, it’s extremely difficult to stop. The CDC found that only one in eight high school students who attempted to quit smoking were successful for at least 30 days. If those who are motivated to quit smoking can’t stop, how will this law affect those who want to continue receiving their daily dose of tobacco?
“I’m just going to keep buying cigarettes and if they don’t let me buy cigarettes, then my family will just buy them for me and the police are going to start giving me tickets,” Haney said.
Haney believes that raising the smoking age to 21 may prevent some people from picking up the habit, but it won’t make much of a difference.
“I think it’s going to be the same as if the smoking age were still 18,” Haney said. “People are going to smoke if they want to smoke, whether there are laws or not.”
Haney suggested a possible solution for current smokers who will be underage again when the law goes into effect is to enact a grandfather clause, which would exempt those who have already turned 18 and were once legally allowed to smoke tobacco.
Local business owners who will be negatively affected by the law would most likely agree with Haney’s suggestion, such as Jess Bender, owner of the head shop Still Smokin’.
“I personally started smoking cigarettes when I was 15 and I had no problem getting them,” Bender said. “I don’t think it’s going to accomplish anything. If you’re really determined to smoke and you’re going to be underage again, you’re going to find your cigarettes somehow.”
Bender said he’s concerned with how the law will affect his business because about 30 to 40 percent of his clientele are between the ages of 18 and 21. He is currently speaking with his lawyers about marketing strategies they can use to continue selling glass pieces and other smoking paraphernalia to customers who are 18 or older, but knows he won’t be able to get around the law prohibiting the sale of actual tobacco to customers under 21.
What’s more, Bender brought up the fact that when President Barack Obama first took office in 2009, his administration immediately made flavored cigarettes illegal. This caused many companies to rebrand their products, such as Juicy Jay, which produces and sells rolling papers. Bender pointed out how the company now prints a disclaimer on all of their products stating they’re “not for use with or sold for use with tobacco” and “only for use with legal smoking herbs.”
“It seems like they’re going in two different directions here because on the marijuana side, everything is becoming legal and now they’re going against smoking tobacco,” said Ken Karinen, an employee at the Still Smokin’ in Lahaina. “It’s your choice to put in your body whatever you want. I could see not promoting it for young people but 18 is an adult. Are we going to change that?”
If anything, Bender and Karinen believe that this law will lead to more problems as opposed to solving them, such as creating another black market and an even larger population of criminals because of the amount of smokers under the age of 21 who will still find a way to obtain cigarettes.
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Johnson said that most people are law-abiding citizens, so this shouldn’t be too big of an issue and the positive effects will certainly outweigh the negative ones.
“We know that young people get their hands on alcohol under the age of 21, but it’s not a majority,” Johnson said. “Only 10 percent of high school students smoke in Hawaii, so just having less access to tobacco is going to help reduce that much further.”
In response to local business owners who appear to be upset by this law, such as Bender, Johnson said her focus is on keeping people healthy.
“It’s still a legal product for those over the age of 21,” Johnson said. “I really don’t wish to harm anybodies livelihood but when you’re dealing with products that are not safe, perhaps they could find something else that would be a better alternative.”
Electronic smoking devices have been promoted as a healthier alternative to traditional cigarette smoking, but Johnson believes they’re just as harmful.
“The product hasn’t been out that long but the device has generated tremendous interest and activity, particularly in Hawaii, which has been a major concern to us,” Johnson said. “It hasn’t been determined to be a safe alternative to smoking and many people who have attempted to use it to quit smoking haven’t totally given up traditional smoking.”
According to the CDC, more than a quarter million middle and high school students had never smoked traditional cigarettes but had used electronic smoking devices in 2013, three times higher than 2011. This data paired with the uncertainty regarding these devices (also known as e-cigarettes or vaporizers) prompted government officials to raise the smoking age to 21 for those who use these products. E-cigarettes will also be banned in all areas where traditional cigarette smoking has already been deemed illegal, which is 20 feet away from businesses and on all beaches.
“Smoking was originally made that way because second-hand smoke was a big factor. People were getting sick with cancer and other illnesses, but vaping hasn’t shown to have any second-hand exposure,” said Garett Uyesugi, owner of Island E-Cig and Vape Company (which is a division of Island Hobbies). “For smoking on beaches, a lot of issues were with cigarette butts being thrown in the sand, but vaping doesn’t involve butts or anything else.”
Uyesugi said he doesn’t agree with the idea that e-cigarettes should be classified as a tobacco product because the only similarity between smoking e-cigarettes and traditional cigarettes is that they both use nicotine. The difference is how the nicotine is administered to the user and Uyesugi explained that burning cigarettes leads to taking in carcinogens, which is what can cause health problems. E-cigarettes derive the nicotine out of tobacco, which simply acts as caffeine and gives users an energy boost. Uyesugi said that e-cigarettes work in a similar nature to nicotine patches or gum.
“Vaping started out being, and we still adhere to this, as a way of getting off smoking,” Uyesugi said. “It’s already been proven in a lot of studies from across the world that vaping and the use of e-cigarettes is far more productive towards getting people to stop smoking than patches or other pharmaceutical options.”
Uyesugi said the e-juice that is put into e-cigarettes is made of vegetable glycerin, polyglycol, food grade flavorings and nicotine. All of the ingredients used are approved by the Federal Drug Administration, but e-cigarettes themselves have yet to be endorsed.
“The government has lost track of why vaporizers are around: to promote a healthy American,” Uyesugi said. “The whole idea is not for people to vape for the rest of their lives. They match their nicotine level, so they get their fix and then it’s easier to diminish the nicotine addiction that way and you can keep incrementing [sic] down until you reach zero nicotine. We already have a tremendous amount of customers who have done that.”
Uyesugi said that he’s received positive feedback from 100 percent of his customers.
“They feel so much better now and their doctors are saying their health is much better,” Uyesugi said. “They’re able to taste things, they’re able to smell things and they’re happier because they don’t have to hide smoking from their family and friends.”
He said his business typically caters to the older crowd, with only about 20 percent of customers falling between 18 and 21. Although he does see the new law affecting his sales, he doesn’t think it will be completely devastating. This is partially because Uyesugi believes underage residents will find a way to continue purchasing e-cigarettes if they’re determined to do so.
“I have first-hand experience that parents are buying their under 18-year-old kids vape and the whole reason behind it is that their kids are already addicted to smoking, so the parent wants them to quit smoking,” Uyesugi said.
A common argument against the law, which is shared by both Bender and Uyesugi, is that an 18-year-old is an adult who can make life-altering decisions but now they can’t choose to smoke tobacco products, which seems unfair.
“At the age of 18, you can go into the army and kill people, you can make a mistake that can cost you your entire life and you could go to prison or get executed,” Uyesugi said. “When they raise the legal age to 21, they’re saying you’re not smart enough to determine for yourself if you should smoke or, now, if you should vape. It doesn’t make sense.”
Johnson said that it will be up to each base commander to determine how they wish to adhere to the law and most military locations will abide by the law of the land where they’re stationed.
“The military itself is moving towards reducing smoking among its troops because it impacts their readiness,” Johnson said. “They’re probably going to raise the prices of tobacco products on military bases and it’ll be interesting to see how it’s played out in Hawaii with the bases and our law.”
Cover design: Darris Hurst