Oahu may join a growing number of jurisdictions throughout the country, including Hawaii County, to raise the minimum age for buying cigarettes from 18 to 21.

Bill 51, which increases the minimum age for purchasing both cigarettes and increasingly popular electronic cigarette devices, passed the Honolulu City Council’s Committee on Public Safety and Economic Development on Tuesday. The bill, proposed by Councilman Stanley Chang, must pass two more votes by the full City Council before it would be passed on to Mayor Kirk Caldwell for his consideration.

The measure has garnered support from the Hawaii Department of Health and groups such as the American Lung Association in Hawaii, the Coalition for a Tobacco-Free Hawaii and the American Cancer Society. 

Jessica Yamauchi, executive director of Coalition for a Tobacco-Free Hawaii testifies to the Honolulu City Council Committee on Public Safety and Economic Development on August 26, 2014.

Jessica Yamauchi, executive director of Coalition for a Tobacco-Free Hawaii, testifies in support of raising the minimum age for buying cigarettes Tuesday.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Nationally, 95 percent of smokers begin smoking before the age of 21, with 80 percent  trying their first cigarette before age 18, according to the state health department. 

“Tobacco companies heavily target young adults through a variety of marketing activities because they know it is a critical time period for solidifying nicotine addiction,” stated testimony submitted by Linda Rosen, director of the state health department, in favor of the bill. 

But the measure is encountering pushback from e-cigarette companies who argue that it unfairly targets their products, which are marketed as a safe alternative to tobacco smoke, and businesses that say such a law should only be implemented at the state level. Critics also argue that people are considered adults at the age of 18 and should be able to make their own decisions on smoking. 

“It’s a slap in the face to returning veterans who are able to smoke in Afghanistan and able to smoke in Iraq,” Michael Zehner told the council, echoing arguments made when Congress raised the age for purchasing alcohol from 18 to 21 in the 1980s. “To tell them that they can’t have a cigarette after that, that’s ridiculous.”

“Tobacco companies heavily target young adults through a variety of marketing activities because they know it is a critical time period for solidifying nicotine addiction.” — Linda Rosen, director of the state health department

Councilman Ikaika Anderson was the only member of the committee to object to the measure Tuesday, saying that he agrees with the intent, but philosophically disagrees with passing such restrictions on adults. He noted that he began smoking at age 18 and has since quit. 

Many e-cigarette products provide nicotine in a form that emits mainly water vapor and is generally viewed as safer than smoking tobacco, which includes hundreds of chemicals and is a leading cause of cancer. 

Vaping, the term used for smoking an e-cigarette, has become increasingly popular in Hawaii, with some smokers saying it has helped them quit. 

Cory Smith, CEO of Volcano Fine Electronic Cigarettes, in testimony submitted to the council, said that Bill 51 is discriminatory because it doesn’t also restrict nicotine cessation products, such as   lozenges, patches and inhalers that contain nicotine.

HPD Captain Lisa Mann testifies to the Honolulu City Council Committee on Public Safety and Economic Development on August 26, 2014.

Honolulu Police Capt. Lisa Mann testifies before the City Council Committee on Public Safety and Economic Development on a bill that would raise the minimum age for buying cigarettes.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

“Although vapor products emit no smoke and contain no tobacco, Bill 51 falsely defines vapor products as ‘electronic smoking devices’ and deceptively redefines ‘tobacco products’ to include these products,'” wrote Smith.

Critics of e-cigarettes say that while they may help ween smokers off of cigarettes, the vaping devices can cause young people to become addicted to nicotine and act as a gateway to smoking regular cigarettes. E-cigarette companies have also infused their products with such flavors as cherry and chocolate, and some people say that was done to attract teenagers.

“I think if the law is raised to 21 and you don’t include the e-cigarettes then you create a loophole and create a market for 18- to 21-year-olds,”  said Jessica Yamauchi, executive director of Coalition for a Tobacco-Free Hawaii.

“It’s a slap in the face to returning veterans who are able to smoke in Afghanistan and able to smoke in Iraq. To tell them that they can’t have a cigarette after that, that’s ridiculous.” — Michael Zehner

If the bill passes, Oahu would join the Big Island in raising the smoking age to 21. The County of Hawaii’s ordinance went into effect in July. New York City, as well as a couple dozen municipalities in Massachusetts, have passed similar laws, according to Yamauchi. 

Bill 51 would go into effect at the beginning of 2015 and grandfather in people who are then 18-20 so as not to ban those who are already addicted to smoking from purchasing nicotine products. 

Sellers of nicotine products would be fined $500 for a first offense and up to $2,000 for subsequent offenses if caught breaking the law. Anyone under the age of 21 caught buying the products would be fined $10 for a first offense, and $50 thereafter.

The law would only penalize young smokers at the point of sale, not when they are subsequently lighting up. 

Action Deferred on Hanauma Bay and City Fine Proposal

Also on Tuesday, the council’s Committee on Executive Matters and Legal Affairs, deferred a measure that would create a semi-autonomous agency to manage and operate Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve, citing concerns about the measure’s legality.

Friends of Hanauma Bay, a nonprofit that conducts education programs and volunteer cleanups for the park, has complained that the city has been mismanaging the bay’s special fund, comprised of admission and parking fees, as well as concession rents, while the park deteriorates.

Leaders of the nonprofit and City Parks Director Michele Nekota, indicated Tuesday that they were working together to resolve the issues. Nekota also said she would submit a detailed account of how money from the fund has been spent in recent years.

The committee also deferred Bill 50, which would require the city to seek City Council approval if it wants to reduce fines for illegal commercial activities in residential areas, such as weddings.

Committee Chair Ron Menor noted that the City Council may not be equipped to handle the large volume of potential cases and that it also raised legal issues involving the separation of powers.

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