A bill that would make Hawaii the first state to raise the legal smoking age to 21 cleared the Legislature on Friday and is headed to the governor.
It’s unclear whether Gov. David Ige will sign the measure.
Jodi Leong, a spokeswoman in his office, said the proposed law, outlined in Senate Bill 1030, “is still being reviewed by the departments and has not yet reached the governor’s desk.”
The bill would prevent adolescents from smoking, buying or both possessing traditional and electronic cigarettes, beginning on Jan. 1, 2016.
“We are making it harder to maintain the ability to smoke or vape, but it’s to help promote a healthier lifestyle,” Rep. Daynette “Dee” Morikawa, D, Koloa-Niihau, wrote in an email. “Powder alcohol is becoming another problem.”
There was no consensus among Kauai residents on Friday.
“I think it’s good because some of the younger people don’t make good choices because their sense of discretion hasn’t matured yet,” Kapaa High School junior Lauren Lagana said. “The three-year difference gives young adults time to mature and hopefully make good choices.”
Kapaa High School math teacher Keith Kitamura agreed.
“It is a fact that regular cigarettes are not good for people, so the less people in the community who are addicted, the better it is for the community,” Kitamura said. “As for raising the age, I’m not sure how much it will deter the sales of cigarettes.”
Lihue resident Harry Shigekane said the decision to smoke should be a personal choice.
“I don’t care. If you can serve your country at 18 years old, you should be able to drink and smoke. In that instance, I care,” Shigekane said. “By legal definition, you are an adult at 18 years old. The states are arbitrarily making their own rules when it comes to age. If you can vote, you can smoke.”
An Ohana Spoke Shop employee, who declined to be named, said the Legislature is essentially “following the County of Hawaii (Big Island) model where the minimum age for cigarette purchase is 21.”
“The Big Island ‘grandfathered’ the 18-year-old to the date its ordinance passed,” the clerk explained. “This means if you were 18 and purchasing when the law was passed, you cannot be prosecuted for purchasing. We follow whatever is the law.”
A smoke shop customer who only provided his first name, Bob, disagreed with the Legislature’s decision.
“Instead of spending time and money on these things that make politicians appear to be doing their job, why aren’t we working on more important issues like the traffic,” Bob said.
Those caught breaking the rules would be fined $10 for the first offense. Subsequent offenses would lead to a $50 fine, or 48 to 72 hours of mandatory community service.
“It’s definitely groundbreaking legislation,” said Jessica Yamauchi, executive director of the Coalition for a Tobacco Free Hawaii, which pushed for the bill. “It’s amazing to be the first state in something. That’s very exciting for us.”
Some state lawmakers are not on board just yet.
Rep. Derek Kawakami, D, Wailua-Hanalei, said most people at the age of 18 are considered an adult and, in turn, “are responsible for many important decisions that may affect your life,” such as entering into contracts and joining the military.
“This may be seen by some as an infringement on our freedom,” Kawakami said about the Legislature’s decision to raise the minimum age to purchase cigarettes. “We must also keep in mind that changes to the law will require extensive educational outreach to our local vendors and retailers. At the end of the day, we all understand that smoking is hazardous to your health and should be avoided, but there is a fine line that can be crossed when intervening with personal freedom.”
Some local governments have similar bans, including Hawaii County.
According to the state Department of Heath, 5,600 kids in Hawaii try smoking each year, and 90 percent of daily smokers begin the habit before age 19. Meanwhile, 1,200 people die from tobacco use or exposure in Hawaii every year.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.