By NANCY COOK LAUER
Stephens Media Hawaii
The legal age to buy tobacco products on Hawaii Island would increase from 18 to 21 under a bill set to be discussed next month by the County Council.
If passed by the council and signed by the mayor, the new law would take effect July 1, with a grandfather period for those older than 18 when the law takes effect, according to a draft copy of the bill obtained by Stephens Media Hawaii. Retailers selling to underage customers would be subject to a $500 fine for the first offense and from $500 to $2,000 for subsequent offenses.
The bill is supported by the Coalition for a Tobacco-Free Hawaii. Executive Director Jessica Yamauchi points to statistics showing 95 percent of smokers start smoking by age 21. There are more than double the smokers in the 18-to-20-year-old age bracket than 16 to 17 years old, she said.
“Many smokers turn to daily use between 18 and 21,” Yamauchi said. “That is the critical time they transition into daily users.”
If the bill is successful, Hawaii County would join two Massachusetts towns in raising the age to buy cigarettes, smokeless tobacco, electronic smoking devices and the like to 21. New York City has a similar bill pending, and Texas is among the state governments considering such a measure.
Federal law limits sales to those over 18. Alabama, Alaska, New Jersey and Utah have raised the age to 19.
The bill, being sponsored by Kona Councilman Dru Kanuha, is tentatively scheduled for the Oct. 15 meeting at the West Hawaii Civic Center.
Kanuha is on vacation and couldn’t be reached by press time Tuesday. But office staff said he has been working with interested parties, enforcement agencies and community members on the bill for a long time, trying to work out any potential problems before it is introduced.
Yamauchi said the coalition is not likely to propose a change in state law in the regular legislative session that starts in January, instead focusing its efforts on getting the Hawaii County ordinance passed.
The tobacco industry, retail groups and some lawmakers have opposed similar legislation on the mainland, citing loss of tax revenue, more red tape for store owners and loss of personal freedoms for adults, according to reports published in the Wall Street Journal and other newspapers.
Some opponents say banning cigarette sales to young adults could force them to buy on the black market or through Internet sites, with lost taxes to the state and a dubious quality product.
The Retail Merchants of Hawaii, a trade group that lobbies for store owners, did not return a detailed phone and email message left at its office Tuesday.