- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 5, 2016

The last state to join the union has become the first to raise the legal smoking age to 21. As of Jan. 1, state law in effect across Hawaii prohibits anyone under the age of 21 from purchasing cigarettes, including both the traditional type and the increasingly ubiquitous e-cig.

While the legal smoking age throughout most of the U.S. will stay for now at a firm 18, Hawaii has become the first and only state in the country to outright ban anyone below the age of 21 from buying smokes.

“We are proud to once again be at the forefront of the nation in tobacco prevention and control,” Virginia Pressler, the state’s director of health, said in a statement. “While our comprehensive approach to addressing tobacco use in Hawaii has led to quantifiable decreases in deaths due to smoking, an increase in targeted marketing to our youth and young adults and new technology in the form of e-cigarettes requires our state to take additional measures to protect our young people.”

Specifically, individuals in Hawaii must be at least 21 to buy tobacco products and electronic smoking devices, including e-cigarettes. A second measure that also went into effect on the first of the year reclassifies the state’s smoke-free laws to incorporate e-cigs, making it illegal to enjoy the up-and-coming alternative in public places where traditional smoking is already prohibited.

“While smoking rates have drastically decreased among Hawaii’s youth and adults, there has been a recent and rapid increase in e-cigarette use. Only 5 percent of Hawaii public high school students reported trying e-cigarettes in 2011 versus 22 percent in 2014, representing a 344 percent increase in e-cigarette use in just four years. Among middle school students, e-cigarette use jumped 542 percent during the same time period, from 2 percent in 2011 to 12 percent in 2014,” the governor’s office said in a statement.

When police officially begin enforcing the law after a three-month grace period, retailers spotted selling cigarettes and e-cigs to individuals under the age of 21 will have to pay penalties ranging from $500 to $2,000; customers caught skirting the law will risk being fined upwards of $50 for each offense, as well as be forced to participate in community service.

Roughly 5,600 kids in Hawaii try smoking every year, and around 86 percent of adult smokers across the state had their first cigarette before turning 21, state officials said. The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids has claimed that about 1,400 people die annually in Hawaii from either first- or second-hand exposure to cigarettes smoke.

“I think it’s going to have a tremendous impact,” Jessica Yamauchi, executive director of the Coalition for a Tobacco-Free Hawaii, said of the new law. “By really limiting the access it will really help to curb the prevalence.”

Cities and municipalities elsewhere in the nation have similarly upped age restrictions in recent years as well, but the latest rule to be added to Hawaii’s law books is the first such law to be implemented on a statewide level. New York City raised the legal age for selling tobacco-products and e-cigs to 21 in 2014, and the City Council in Cleveland, Ohio. voted 13 to 3 last month in favor of raising the minimum age for cigarettes sales from 18 to 21.

Hawaii’s first-in-the-nation bill passed the predominantly Democratic state legislature in April and was signed by Gov. David Ige two months later. In a recent survey conducted by the Honolulu State-Advertiser, nearly three-quarters of respondents told the newspaper that they supported the measure, but nearly half of those in favor said they feared the law would ultimately prove to be ineffective.

• Andrew Blake can be reached at ablake@washingtontimes.com.

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