​Hawaii on tobacco road to becoming first state to ban smoking for under-21s

Reuters / Ivan Alvarado
Hawaii is on its way to becoming the first ever US state to raise the tobacco smoking age to 21. The groundbreaking bill passed the Legislature on Friday and is awaiting the governor’s signature.

The bill was pushed through by the Coalition for a Tobacco-Free Hawaii and scored an overwhelming 19-4 in favor. It will affect the smoking, buying and possession of cigarettes, including the electronic kind.

"It's definitely groundbreaking legislation," the lobby group’s Jessica Yamauchi said, adding that it’s “amazing to be the first state in something. That’s very exciting for us,” she told the AP.

What remains is for Governor David Ige to sign the document and for his cabinet to look for potential legal issues that may arise.

"The departments will be doing their review and then we'll have the opportunity to look at it," Ige said.

The initiative was based around the simple math that around 12 percent of people could be prevented from picking up smoking if the law were passed, according to the Institute of Medicine, which is part of the National Academy of Sciences.

If successful, fines will be put into place of $10 for the first offense and a possible $50 for subsequent violations. Community service will also be included as possible punishment.

Hawaii will have become the first state to ever pass the law, although local governments of Hawaii County and New York City have already taken the lead.

The state’s Health Department says some 5,600 youngsters there pick up the habit. Moreover, 90 percent of daily smokers in the state start before the age of 19. The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids puts the annual death toll to 1,400. The medical bills associated with this top half a billion dollars every year.

"Today we have the opportunity to change the paradigm," Senator Rosalyn Baker (d) said. She introduced the bill.

In most of the US states the legal smoking age is 19, while in a few states the limit is 19. But some cities and counties, including New York City and Hawaii County, have already set the limit at 21.

AP spoke to one young woman of 17, who is an active backer of the campaign in Hawaii, as she’s had enough of constantly inhaling electronic cigarette fumes when she enters a high school bathroom.

"You feel like you want to hold your breath because you don't want to smell what they're smoking," she told the news agency.

But not everyone is excited. Opponents are striking out, alluding to a number of issues, like the fact that you’re deemed an adult when you turn 18. Sub Ohm Vapes shop owner Michelle Johnston said she finds it strange that “You can sign up and be in the military and basically give your life for your country [and] vote,” so “why shouldn’t you be able to choose if you want to buy tobacco products or vaping products, when you’re considered a legal adult?”

Senator Gil Riviere (d) was one of the four who voted against the document, shares the assertion, but doesn’t necessarily oppose the bill, if it were applied to everyone – not just the under-21 age group.

A huge rise in electronic cigarette smoking has occurred, especially among middle and high-school students, according to the National Youth Tobacco Survey. The fears over underage smoking are compounded by an increasing number of studies finding that e-cigarettes are actually much more dangerous than regular tobacco. Whatever the real medical truth, the Oxford English Dictionary named ‘vaping’ its number one word of 2014.