By NANCY COOK LAUER
Stephens Media Hawaii
They’re too young to vote, but a group of schoolchildren are expected Tuesday to voice their opinions nonetheless about tobacco sales before a Hawaii County Council committee.
The children, who plan to address the council Committee on Public Safety and Mass Transit, are supporting Bill 135 introduced by Kona Councilman Dru Kanuha that would raise the age to buy tobacco products from 18 to 21.
“I’ve been getting a lot of support,” Kanuha said Friday. “I haven’t been hearing too many negative comments about the idea.”
The committee meeting starts at 9:30 a.m. at the West Hawaii Civic Center, with the public also able to attend through videoconference sites at Hilo council chambers, the Waimea council office, Hawaiian Ocean View Estates Community Center and the Pahoa Neighborhood Facility.
If the bill passes, 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. Hawaii’s counties can enact legislation more stringent than state law, but not more lenient.
Kanuha said he’s been getting a lot of support from 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 told Stephens Media Hawaii last month. “That is the critical time they transition into daily users.”
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.
But state Sen. Josh Green, a Kona/Ka‘u Democrat who chairs the Senate Health Committee, likes the idea.
“Any legislation that discourages tobacco use is good, especially in young people,” Green said.
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. 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 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, has previously lobbied the state Legislature opposing tightening of tobacco sales permit requirements in the state, citing an undue burden on store owners. The association has not returned telephone messages.
A representative of the Hawaii Smokers Alliance, a group lobbying for loosening smoking bans, did not return a phone and email message Friday.
Kanuha, who said he’s never even tried a cigarette, said he remembers underage schoolmates trying cigarettes. Nowadays, he said, electronic cigarettes seem the popular choice among the young set.
“The advertisements make it fashionable,” Kanuha said. “I’ve seen a steady increase in the use of e-cigs.”
Email Nancy Cook Lauer at firstname.lastname@example.org.