Legislation now awaiting the governor’s signature advances the front in the war on tobacco in new and historic ways. Senate Bill 1030 would ban the purchase, possession and public use of all tobacco products and e-cigarettes by those under 21, making Hawaii the first state to outlaw tobacco for the 18- to 20-year-old set.
Such products are already outlawed for minors. This bill wades into more difficult waters, so far only attempted by New York City and a handful of other metro areas, in making tobacco products illegal for young adults, but maintaining their legality for those 21 and older. (Alabama, Alaska, New Jersey and Utah, it should be noted, restrict tobacco sales to those under 19.)
There is precedent for such regulation. Hawaii’s legal drinking age has been fixed at 21 for nearly three decades. Though 18-year-olds can join the military, vote, marry and otherwise be treated as adults in the eyes of the law in a range of other circumstances, society nationwide has long been perfectly comfortable with restricting their access to alcohol, under the guise that younger adults are more prone to alcohol abuse and attendant problems than those 21 and older.
Hawaii is poised to ban purchase and public use of tobacco products and e-cigarettes for those under 21.
Challiyil EswarChalakudy via Wikimedia Commons
There is compelling reasoning and evidence that acting similarly on tobacco products and e-cigarettes would have tremendously positive public health benefits. As the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids points out, 95 percent of adult smokers say they got their start prior to 21.
“Nicotine’s pleasurable effects are strongest on teenage brains, making continued smoking and eventual addiction much more likely if experimentation begins early,” said a Washington Post editorial in March that argued for cities, states and Congress to do exactly what Hawaii stands ready to do now.
“Up to half of the world’s more than 1 billion smokers will die prematurely of a tobacco-related disease,” reports the World Health Organization website. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that nearly one-fifth of this country’s adults smoke cigarettes, which in turn causes about one in five deaths.
A study published last year in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine showed that for every $10 in health care expenditures in the United States, just under 90 cents is due to smoking, resulting in a staggering national cost of $170 billion a year. To put that in context, consider that Honolulu could build its costly rail project 28 times for the amount that the country spends on tobacco-related health care in one year.
We know many smokers, and most strongly regret having started smoking in their teens or young adult years. And though the rate of smoking nationally has declined steadily and significantly from a high of 42 percent 50 years ago, the data show unequivocally that those who choose to light up — and who society permits to do so — bring enormous challenges to us all.
Gov. David Ige now faces a difficult choice in balancing the protection of personal liberty against the major health and economic benefits of taking away that liberty from some in our state.
As difficult as that choice may be, we encourage the governor to sign the bill.
Tobacco stands alone as a commodity with uniquely negative and far-reaching consequences for all of society. Forestalling young adults’ ability to light up, chew or vape won’t prevent them from doing so once they reach 21. With a continued collective effort to push tobacco use further to the margins of acceptable society, we hope that ever fewer of them will make that choice.
The lives saved and costs avoided will be well worth this admitted intrusion into individual freedoms.
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