Hawaii’s ban on flavored e-cigarettes will land on the governor’s desk, having survived a rollercoaster legislative session that saw the bill near death on multiple occasions.

After a contentious debate Tuesday, House Bill 1570 passed its final reading in the state House of Representatives with 36 voting in favor and 15 in opposition, reflecting division among public health advocates and other supporters who turned their backs on the measure they helped write.

At issue was a Senate amendment that would exempt from the ban certain tobacco products that had received federal Food and Drug Administration approval.

Rep. Scot Matayoshi, the bill’s sponsor, acknowledged HB 1570’s shortcomings in a speech on the House floor but said Hawaii was at level “zero” in combatting a vaping epidemic that has haunted Hawaii’s youth for years.

“We have tried for years, in this chamber, to pass any kind of flavored vaping ban or restriction,” Matayoshi said. “And we stand here now … about to give our kids some kind of hope that they don’t have to be addicted to nicotine for the rest of their lives.”

After a contentious vote, Hawaii’s flavored tobacco ban will land on the governor’s desk. Flickr/vaping360.com

The ban, which would take effect after the new year, outlaws the sale of nearly all flavored tobacco products in Hawaii stores, including menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars. The primary target of the measure, however, are the fruity or dessert-scented flavored e-cigarettes most popular with middle and high school students.

It is a major loss for Hawaii’s legal vaping industry, which has campaigned vigorously against a prohibition on the products that form their livelihood.

“99.9% of everything that our industry sells to adult consumers, legally with age verification, is flavored products,” said Scott Rasak, chief operating officer of Volcano, a vape shop chain with 16 locations across the state. “We’re talking about hundreds of businesses, thousands of jobs.”

Vape shop owners argue that a tobacco ban will force kids onto the black market. Public health activists, however, have long advocated for cutting flavored vapes off at the source.

The bill’s path to passage has been long and winding.

HB 1570 nearly doubled in length after house health committee chair Rep. Ryan Yamane packed the measure with amendments that advocates described as poisonous to the bill’s intent.

Senate Health Committee chair Jarrett Keohokalole largely returned the bill to its original form, but inserted language exempting products that secured FDA approval to enter the market.

While no flavored e-cigarette products currently have market approval from a Biden administration firmly opposed to flavored tobacco, advocates worry the exemption will allow deep-pocketed tobacco companies to charm regulators in coming years.

“The advocates who have been doing this work for decades know that the tobacco industry is always 10 steps ahead,” said Amanda Fernandes, advocacy director for the Hawaii Public Health Institute. “Tobacco manufacturers that can afford to put their products before the review process with the FDA are going to be privileged by this exemption.”

The bill would lose the support of the Hawaii Public Health Institute and partner organizations and even saw the Hawaii Department of Health publicly come out in opposition to the amended measure.

“DOH opposes the version of HB 1570 that passed the Legislature today,” spokeswoman Kaitlin Arita-Chang wrote in an email. “The inclusion of the FDA language negates the original intent of the bill — which was to ban flavored vape products.

Even after securing legislative approval, the ban’s future is uncertain.

Representative Scot Matayoshi listens during joint WAM Finance info meeting held at the Capitol Auditorium.
Rep. Scot Matayoshi said, despite the loophole, the vaping ban deserves to become law. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

Hawaii’s vaping industry will challenge the ban’s legality in court, Volcano’s Rasak vowed.

The bill might also receive pushback from Gov. David Ige, who introduced a similar flavor ban to the Senate this year but has yet to reveal his stance on HB 1570 in its current form.

“I think that the governor might veto the bill,” Matayoshi said in an interview after the vote. “It really depends on the census of the (public health) community.”

Despite easily passing the Senate in a 22 to 1 vote mid-April, HB 1570 barely eked out a veto-proof, two-thirds majority in the House.

Whatever roadblocks emerges, Matayoshi said he would continue advocating for the ban’s passage.

“This bill makes so much forward progress that I could not in good conscience stop supporting it,” Matayoshi said. “Some regulation is better than none. And when we’re talking about kids’ lives, I’ll take it, I’ll take some.

Civil Beat’s health coverage is supported by the Atherton Family Foundation, Swayne Family Fund of Hawaii Community Foundation, Cooke Foundation and Papa Ola Lokahi.

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