A county ordinance raising the legal age to buy tobacco products to 21 goes into effect in less than a week and Big Island retailers are gearing up to comply with the new law.
Effective July 1, Hawaii County will be the only county in the state to prohibit tobacco sales to people younger than 21. The measure, sponsored by Kona Councilman Dru Kanuha, was passed unanimously in November by County Council and signed into law by Mayor Billy Kenoi in December.
“It will affect us, the small business people,” said Ryan Kadota, wine and spirits buyer for Kadota Liquor in Hilo.
Kadota said Monday he didn’t know the percentage of tobacco buyers between the ages of 18 and 20 at his family’s store.
“We do have some regular buyers who are older and more experienced smokers. That seems to be our demographic,” he said.
The law doesn’t make it illegal for young people to smoke, but it penalizes retailers for selling tobacco products such as cigarettes, cigars and electronic cigarettes to underage customers. Violators would be subject to a $500 fine for a first offense and from $500 to $2,000 for subsequent violations.
There is a grandfather clause in the law exempting those who turn 18 on June 30, 2014, or earlier. Starting July 1 for a three-year period ending June 30, 2017, those who sell or display tobacco products are to post a sign at the point of sale stating: “The sale of tobacco products to persons born after June 30, 1996 is prohibited,” in letters at least one-half inch high.
On July 1, 2017, the point-of-sale sign is to read: “The sale of tobacco products to persons under twenty-one years of age is prohibited,” in letters at least 1/2-inch high.
“I know they didn’t provide anything when the (plastic) bag ban went into effect. We had to provide our own signage,” Kadota said.
Fines for retailers who fail to post the signs are $100 for the first offense, $250 for the second offense and $500 for the third and all subsequent violations.
“We’ve ordered signage; we’re expecting it in this week,” said Bree Kobayashi, manager of Keaukaha Market near the Port of Hilo. “The majority of our (tobacco buyers) are over 18; they’re over 21, even. The majority of people who buy cigarettes from us are probably well over 30. Most of them are actually working men, so I don’t think it will affect our sales too much.
“It might affect the younger generation somewhat. There might be some who were looking forward to turning 18 for that reason, but I don’t think it should affect them that much. It might actually be better for them in the long run, health-wise.”
Chuck, a clerk at Kadota Liquor who declined to give his last name, said he started smoking at 18 and has smoked for 23 years.
“It’s one of those things, you’re better off if you never start, for health reasons, for money reasons, for social reasons,” he said. “It’s like a train you can never hop off of.”
He said smoking was more accepted when he started.
“That was many years ago,” he said. “Now, it’s different. Back when I started, it was $2 a pack.”
A pack of cigarettes goes for almost $10 now.
“Hawaii has one of the highest tobacco tax rates in the nation,” Kadota noted. “If that hasn’t been a deterrent, I’m not sure what is.”
According to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, Hawaii, with a tax of $3.20 a pack, is one of six states to tax cigarettes more than $3 a pack. New York state has the highest tax on cigarettes, at $4.35 a pack.
New York City, which has a municipal tax of $1.50 a pack on top of the state tax, last year became the first major U.S. city to ban tobacco sales to individuals younger than 21. A number of Massachusetts towns also raised the legal age to buy tobacco to 21.
Kanuha said when introducing the bill the intent was “to help our young people live longer, healthier lives.” Kobayashi and Kadota acknowledged Kanuha’s intent, but questioned the intrusion by government into the personal lives of legal adults.
“I think if you’re old enough to go to war, you should be old enough to make your own choices about consumption, as well,” Kobayashi said.
Added Kadota, “I can see where it’s coming from, but … you can serve your country when you’re 18 and die, but you can’t have a cigarette. You’re serving, perhaps in a foreign nation in a foxhole somewhere, but you can’t have a smoke.
“I understand the concerns about public health, but it goes to personal rights, too. And if you’re adult at 18, to be tried, to vote, to be held to these adult standards, you should also be allowed to make the bad decisions, I guess.”
Email John Burnett at email@example.com.