Denby Fawcett: Tighter Regulation Of Vaping In Hawaii No Longer Just A Pipe Dream - Honolulu Civil Beat

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About the Author

Denby Fawcett

Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat’s views.

Hawaii youth have been heavily involved in raising awareness about the risks of vaping and the marketing that targets kids.

In a surprise move that stunned many Friday evening, a House-Senate conference committee agreed on a bill to tax and regulate vaping devices and vaping liquids the same as other tobacco products.

A tobacco product is any product or device that delivers nicotine to the human brain.

The bill also would make it a crime to ship to Hawaii electronic cigarettes and all other vaping products to anyone not holding a valid retail permit or wholesale license.

While the sales of alcohol and regular cigarettes have decreased in Hawaii and nationally, vaping has increased especially among young people.

Senate Health Committee Chair Joy San Buenaventura, a key supporter of the legislation, said the down-to-the-wire approval of the bill was “unlike other conference committees that can be routine and boring. It was dramatic.”

Supporters cheered and after, outside of the room, some of them hugged and sobbed.

“It was made clear to us by teachers and others that making the vaping products pricier is a way to substantially curtail their use,” said San Buenaventura. 

This legislation — expected to win lawmakers’ full approval Thursday — is a breakthrough. For the first time in state history, there will be a law to specifically protect young people and children from the medically harmful vape products by making them difficult to buy and more expensive.

“It was easy to break out crying. I am so grateful,” says Lola Irvin. “We have tried to get this legislation for nine years. It is for the sake of the kids. We need kids to be protected from the companies’ heavy marketing of flavored vaping products. We need to show we are a caring society.”

Irvin is the administrator of the state Department of Health’s Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion Division.

She says it has been frustrating that even this first step forward has taken so long. When she started advocating for the legislation to make it more difficult for vaping companies to sell their nicotine delivery products to underaged kids her youngest son was in high school and now he is an adult teaching at the University of Central Washington.

Zoey Duan testifying last year on behalf of a bill to ban all flavored tobacco products that keeps failing at the Legislature.
(Courtesy Hawaii Public Health Initiative)

Zoey Duan began to advocate for the passage of bills to curtail the sales of vaping products to youth when she was 14. Today, she is a freshman at Yale University. She said she got a text Friday in her Yale dorm room in New Haven, Connecticut, to inform her the vaping product tax bill had made it out of conference committee.

“I quite literally jumped up and down in happiness. I actually told one of my dorm mates about it randomly because of my excitement, even though she had no idea what was really going on,” says Duan.

Duan who grew up in Liliha first became alarmed when she was at middle school and came across other students and friends vaping in the school bathroom.

‘I’ve seen it first hand, when my fellow classmates and friends would fill the school bathrooms with sickly sweet scents of cotton candy using vapes that they bought online with just the click of a button,” she wrote in testimony she emailed from New Haven to the Legislature in March.

She said in a phone interview Saturday it has been discouraging to come to the Legislature year after year to see nothing done about the obvious health threat to young people.

Duan continues to serve as public health chair of the Hawaii State Youth Commission and still testifies at the Legislature by email and Zoom to try to stop big tobacco companiesʻ efforts to hook children on nicotine.

“I have high hopes with this new legislation. I know the ‘sin taxes’ on alcohol and cigarettes have worked. I think tobacco taxes on e-cigarettes and e-liquids will have a big impact on a large majority of youth who up until now have been accustomed to low prices and the ease of going on-line to buy it,” she said.

Youth under 21 are prohibited by law from buying all tobacco products but they say it is easy to get around state and federal laws by ordering e-cigarettes and vape liquid on the internet.

Kahuku High School student Kinohi Bridges speaking to fellow students about the dangers of vaping.
(Courtesy Kinohi Bridges)

Kinohi Bridges, another youth activist advocating to make it more difficult for companies to sell nicotine products to youth found out the bill had advanced by a cell phone call while she and her classmates were on their way to participate as hula dancers in their Kahuku High School May Day program.

“I kept saying ‘Oh, my gosh,” she said. “My friends in the car were also happy for me. They said, ‘We know you have worked so hard for this.’” 

Bridges says students at Kahuku High School where she is a senior regularly get busted for vaping in the school restrooms.  

It is not just Kahuku. For years, vaping businesses, many of them owned by large tobacco establishments have had a unrestricted opportunity to sell their addictive products in the islands. 

Critics of the vaping companiesʻ aggressive marketing to youth include doctors, dentists, teachers and public health professionals. They have submitted hundreds of words of testimony to the legislature each year to stress that vaping companies are directly targeting children with colorful packaging and enticing fruit and candy flavors.  

Go into a bathroom in almost any Hawaii high school  and you are are likely to smell sweet scents like bubble gum, watermelon and li hing mui wafting out of the stalls. The flavored aerosols are inhaled by students as young as 10 puffing on hand held vaping devices.

To try to stop the vaping, some schools have locked their restrooms to force students to get permission before they can use them.

The aerosols the kids breathe in from vaping contain addictive nicotine and other harmful chemicals. Their vape devices are small, disposable and easy to hide. 

Until now, Hawaii lawmakers have done practically nothing to create policies to try to stop youth vaping. In 2015, the Legislature prohibited the purchase of all tobacco products including e-cigarettes and e-liquids to anyone under 21. 

Currently, electronic smoking devices and e-liquids are the only tobacco products in Hawaii not subject to tobacco taxes. That makes them cheaper than conventional cigarettes and within the budgets of many youth.  

But the new legislation to make the vaping products the same as tobacco products will make vapes prices soar.

Hawaii taxes on tobacco products are very high. Each pack of 20 traditional cigarettes is slapped with $3.20 in state taxes. The full cost of a pack is about $9.

Lawmakers have agreed in conference that beginning Jan. 1 all electronic smoking devices and e-liquids will have imposed a new tax of 70% of their wholesale price.

Currently, 33 states tax vaping devices and e-liquids the same as other tobacco products.  

“Such a law has been a long time coming here, But I am happy it happened,” said House Health Committee Chair Della Au Belatti. 

Belatti thinks the bill finally won approval because many new lawmakers in the Legislature this year are younger and approach the vaping problem with acute awareness.

Take Down Tobacco rally and march to the Hawaii State Capitol March 15 was aimed at Gov. Josh Green who has been supportive of the effort. (Courtesy Hawaii Public Health Initiative)

Sara Kay, another Hawaii youth advocate, called the bill to elevate vaping products to the same level of regulation and taxes as other tobacco products “huge.” 

In an email, Kay said this will go a long way toward debunking the tobacco industry’s efforts to claim vaping products are not as harmful and addictive as regular cigarettes despite their high levels of nicotine.

“To me, the biggest issue has been changing the public narrative over the dangers of vaping and this bill would solidify that these products are exactly as harmful as tobacco and should be treated as such,” said Kay.

Kay is a graduate of Dartmouth University and now lives in Boston where she works as a software engineer.

Through her high school years at Punahou School she volunteered year after year at the Hawaii Public Health Institute and for the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids to keep all tobacco products out of the hands of kids.

Youth advocates say they will be back for the next legislative session to try for the 10th year to gain passage for a bill that once again died this year to ban all flavored tobacco products in regular and e-cigarettes.

Federal law prohibits flavors in traditional cigarettes except for menthol. But flavors in vaping products are currently legal in Hawaii. 

It is going to be a long battle.

“Every time there is a change in the law, the tobacco industry figures a way to get around it. The industry keeps coming up with new vaping flavors and new smoking devices to appeal to kids,” said Scott Stensrud, Statewide Youth Coordinator for the Hawaii Public Health Institute.

“It is disappointing,” he says.

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About the Author

Denby Fawcett

Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat’s views.

Latest Comments (0)

I favor making it more difficult for kids to obtain vape materials. But won't this also make it much more expensive for someone who is trying to quit smoking tobacco by using vaping? Vaping has negative health effects, but exponentially less than cigarettes.

KailuaMike · 7 months ago

but alcohol is okay?

thinkvision · 7 months ago

For a while I hardly saw people smoking cigarettes at all, and now it seems like they are all over the place again. I'm sure the tobacco companies are happy about this latest development.

TenPercentForDaBigGuy · 7 months ago

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