Whether or not e-cigarettes should be considered in the same category as smoking tobacco has become a debate across the country, and Hawaii is no exception.

A bill that would ban people from smoking e-cigarettes wherever smoking is prohibited passed the Legislature last week, and now awaits the governor’s approval. It’s one of several anti-smoking bills under consideration, with the rest headed for conference committee to iron out differences between Senate and House versions.

House Bill 940, which was introduced by Rep. Joseph Souki, aims to protect the public from potentially harmful chemicals in e-cigarettes by banning them where traditional cigarettes are prohibited, like indoor spaces and workplaces.

E-Cig smoker exhales in downtown Honolulu on July 9, 2014.

An e-cigarette smoker exhales in downtown Honolulu.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Allowing people to smoke e-cigarettes where smoking is banned confuses the public and reverses the progress that has been made in establishing the social norm that smoking is not allowed indoors, the bill states.

E-cigarette manufacturers have marketed their products to be used in places where traditional smoking is banned, like airports and restaurants, said Paul Ho of the American Heart Association in support of HB 940. An American Academy of Pediatrics study estimated U.S. e-cigarette sales at $11.7 billion in 2013.

The measure states that electronic smoking devices produce a combination of potentially harmful substances, including carcinogens and other toxins. And, there aren’t clear guidelines on a national level to ensure quality control for in the manufacturing process of electronic smoking devices, according to HB 940.

It is one of several introduced in the Legislature this session to crack down on smoking — electronic or otherwise.

The proposals include raising the smoking age to 21, banning smoking at state hospital facilities and amending the definition of “tobacco products” to include anything that has nicotine, including electronic cigarettes. Another bill would ban tobacco products in state parks.

The bills are generally supported by local health care providers, but some have been criticized by individuals and business who say they could hurt the local economy and that it is unfair to treat e-cigarettes like traditional cigarettes.

Raising the Age to Buy Tobacco

Senate Bill 1030 would raise the minimum age from 18 to 21 to purchase, possess or consume tobacco products, including e-cigarettes.

The measure was introduced by Sen. Rosalyn Baker. Raising the smoking age could prevent teens from picking up a dangerous habit, Baker told Civil Beat.

Hawaii teens’ rate of e-cigarette use is “substantially higher” than in many other parts of the country, according to a recent study by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

According to the Hawaii Youth Tobacco Survey, e-cigarette use among high school students tripled from 2011 to 2013. Meanwhile, e-cigarette use among middle school students quadrupled during that same time period.

“It’s really apparent that the (smoking) age needs to be raised,” Baker said. “We’re going in the wrong direction.”

Sen. Roz Baker

State Sen. Roz Baker introduced SB 1030, which would raise the smoking age to 21.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Most health insurance companies, schools and other health-based organizations support the bill. The Honolulu Police Department also testified in support.

But the Hawaii Department of Commerce stated the bill could impact small businesses in Hawaii, as well as military personnel stationed in Hawaii.

Several individuals also submitted testimony in opposition, saying that the bill would negatively impact people in the military.

“If you are able to fight for your country and die for its freedoms, you should be able to choose what you want to do health-wise that only truly affects you personally,” Devin Wolery said in written testimony in opposition to SB 1030.

Volcano Fine Electronic Cigarettes, one of the largest manufacturer of e-cigarettes in the state, also opposed the bill, stating in written testimony that it could have “very dire unintended consequences” and could “decimate the vapor industry in Hawaii.”

Making Hospitals No-Smoking Zones

While Hawaii residents can’t smoke at beaches or bus stops, they can smoke outside of some state-funded hospital facilities.

Rep. Della Au Belatti, the House Health Committee chair, introduced a bill that would ban smoking cigarettes, electronic or otherwise, at all Hawaii Health Systems Corporation facilities.

Many health-based organizations, including HHSC, support House Bill 586, saying it would protect employees and visitors from exposure to second-hand smoke.

Leahi HospitalIf HB 586 passes, employees of Leahi Hospital would not be able to smoke at the facility. 

“Allowing tobacco and electronic smoking device usage at our facilities is in direct conflict with the nature of our operations,” HHCS CEO Linda Rosen wrote in testimony to HB 586.

The bill was opposed by dozens of individuals who said there was no justification to treat e-cigarettes like traditional smoking tobacco. Some of them said that electronic smoking devices had helped them to quit smoking, while others argued that e-cigarettes are much safer than other tobacco products.

United Public Workers, which represents approximately 1,600 employees at HHSC, testified in opposition to the bill. HB 586 would interfere with the right of public employees to negotiate conditions of employment, undermine the grievance and arbitration process and give HHSC special treatment over other employers, stated UPW Director Dayton Nakanelua in written testimony.

Increasing Tobacco Tax

House Bill 145 would increase the tax on tobacco products while also changing the definition of what is considered tobacco. Anything that contains nicotine would be considered a tobacco product, including e-cigarettes.

HB 145 states that there should not be a lower-priced tobacco alternative to cigarettes in Hawaii, so a similar tax rate should be applied to all tobacco products to prevent people from using them.

While the bill was supported by some health organizations and individuals, dozens of people testified against it. Some said increasing taxes could negatively impact small businesses.

“I believe that the e-cig industry has helped create jobs in Hawaii, which previously did not exist,” said Brandon Church in written testimony. “If I lost my job because of an unjustified tax increase, I would have to relocate to the mainland to find employment.”

No Smoking in State Parks?

Another bill headed to conference committee would ban smoking — including e-cigarettes — in all state parks.

House Bill 525 was supported by several environmental protection organizations. Their representatives testified that the bill would protect beach- and park-goers from second-hand smoke, and prevent wildlife from coming into contact with cigarette butts.

“As a previous smoker, I know the negative effects of smoking first hand,” Alexandra Glenn said in written testimony in support of HB 525. “I cannot sum up into a rational number the times that I see cigarette butts littered on our island.”

Suzanne Frazer, the president of Beach Environmental Awareness Campaign Hawaii, said that she recently visited three state parks where she, along with one other person, picked up 7,323 cigarette butts, according to Frazer’s testimony on HB 525.

Several people testified in opposition, saying e-cigarettes shouldn’t be prohibited because they don’t produce as much trash.

“There is no justification for a ban because vapor products do not produce smoke, create no litter and vapor dissipates quickly outdoors,” Devin Antonio said.

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