By staff and The Associated Press
LIHUE — Hawaii’s governor has signed a bill to make his state the first to raise the legal smoking age to 21.
The measure aims to prevent adolescents from smoking, buying or possessing both traditional and electronic cigarettes. Gov. David Ige signed it into law Friday.
“Raising the minimum age as part of our comprehensive tobacco control efforts will help reduce tobacco use among our youth and increase the likelihood that our keiki will grow up tobacco-free,” Ige said.
In Hawaii, 86 percent of adult smokers began smoking before age 21, according to the governor’s office.
Valerie Saiki, Tobacco-Free Kauai coordinator, said the new law will reduce smoking among younger people on Kauai.
“I’m just really happy the bill is now signed into law. It will really help protect our youth,” she said. “The majority of smokers start before they’re 18, and so to extend this to 21 is really beneficial.”
John Hunt, past chair of Tobacco-Free Kauai, said studies have shown that if you don’t start smoking by age 21, you probably never will.
“That alone is proof that tobacco should not be available to people under 21 years old,” he said.
But opponents say it’s unfair that a veteran returning from military service who risked his or her life serving the country could be prevented from lighting up.
Those caught breaking the rules would be fined $10 for the first offense, and later violations would lead to a $50 fine or mandatory community service.
The bill goes into effect on the first day of 2016. Until then, the state Department of Health will reach out to retailers and post signs to educate the public about the law.
According to the state Department of Heath, 5,600 kids in Hawaii try smoking every year. Meanwhile, 1,400 people die from tobacco use or exposure in Hawaii every year, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.
This year in Hawaii, an estimated 1,000 children will become new daily smokers and 1.3 million packs of cigarettes will be sold to kids under the age of 18, according to the American Cancer Society.
Tobacco is the number one cause of preventable death nationwide and claims the lives of 1,400 people in Hawaii each year, ACS reported. Tobacco-related health care costs total more than $526 million annually in the state.
“Hawaii policymakers have made a bold move by boosting the sale age,” said Cory Chun, Hawaii Pacific government relations director for the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network. “We’re optimistic about what effect this will have on bringing Hawaii closer to a tobacco-free generation.”
Hawaii’s new law takes effect Jan. 1, 2016.
Ige signed another anti-smoking measure Friday to make Hawaii’s state parks and beaches smoke-free.
“This allows us to put one more impediment to people smoking too much,” Ige said.
Thomas Noyes, general coordinator for The Friends of Kamalani and Lydgate Park, said the bill on tobacco-free should help with keeping parks clean.
“Each time we do a cleanup at Lydgate Park, cigarette butts are the most common sort of litter we encounter,” Noyes said. “This legislation is a significant step towards making all our parks — state and county — tobacco-free for the enjoyment of all.”