The federal government enforces a minimum smoking age of 18, and in some states it is 19. California, New Jersey, Washington and Utah have all considered increasing their smoking ages, but none of the bills have gotten as far as in Hawaii, where the proposal awaits the governor’s signature.
Gov. David Ige (D) said Friday that he is thinking about whether to let the bill become law.
In 2011, about five percent of Hawaiian high school students said they had tried e-cigarettes, which produce an inhalable mist of liquid containing nicotine and flavoring. By 2013, that number had more than tripled to 17 percent, according to the latest data from Hawaii’s department of health. (Another survey from researchers at the University of Hawaii reported much higher experimentation rates. They say that in 2012, about 30 percent of 9th- and 10th-grade students had tried e-cigarettes,)
The state’s report found that younger people were also more likely to use e-cigarettes — or “vape” — regularly. Ten percent of high school students said they had used e-cigarettes within the past month, while 6.7 percent said they had smoked a cigarette in that time.
These statistics mirror the situation nationally. Earlier this month, the CDC reported that between 2013 and 2014, the number of high school students who had vaped in the past month tripled from 4.5 percent to 13.4 percent. Only 9 percent had smoked a cigarette.
Hawaii’s bill, SB 1030, would extend existing underage smoking penalties to those who are 18, 19 or 20 years old. First-time offenders would be fined $10. After that, they would face a $50 fine or 48 to 72 hours of community service.
Those who provide smoking devices to people under 21 would get harsher punishments — a $500 fine at first, and a $500 to $2,000 fine thereafter.
Research shows that most people become regular smokers early in life. In 2012, a U.S. Department of Health survey of smokers in their 30s found that 95 percent had smoked their first cigarette by age 21, and 83 percent had started smoking daily by then. Proponents say that raising the smoking age is one way to stop bad habits from forming during this vulnerable period in adolescence.
Teenage use of tobacco products has remained steady in the past couple of years — though youths are less likely to smoke cigarettes or cigars, and are increasingly turning to e-cigarettes and hookahs. Both these products have been criticized because they come in fun flavors — cherry, milk chocolate, mojito — that appeal to younger users.
E-cigarettes have the benefit of being cleaner than cigarettes, studies say, but they still deliver the addictive drug nicotine. It is unclear what long-term effects nicotine has on the developing brain. There is also concern that e-cigarettes act as a gateway to other tobacco products like traditional cigarettes and cigars, though there is little evidence that this occurs.
The secondhand smoke from e-cigarettes is not completely harmless, since exposure to nicotine raises blood pressure and may have long-term effects on fetal brain development.
On Friday, Ige signed a separate bill prohibiting use of e-cigarettes in places where regular smoking is already illegal. Starting in 2016, nobody will be allowed to puff on e-cigarettes at work, in school, at restaurants, at bars and other public places. Hawaii joins four other states — Utah, North Dakota, Arkansas and New Jersey — that have passed such legislation.
Both that bill and the smoking-age bill had been introduced unsuccessfully last year. But the lesson from Hawaii is that lawmakers will reconsider how to regulate these addicting devices as the e-cigarette industry continues to grow.