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Up in smoke: Hawaii state legislature takes aim at tobacco products

Every year, the American Lung Association releases a report grading each state’s effort to reduce tobacco use.

In the latest report, released on Wednesday, Hawaii received a mix bag of grades from the association. Worst among them: the new “Ending the Sale of All Flavored Tobacco Products,” where the Aloha State received an F. The state also received C grades in Funding for State Tobacco Prevention Programs and Level of State Tobacco Taxes. On the plus side, Hawaii received an A in its Strength of Smokefree Workplace Laws and a B in Coverage and Access to Services to Quit Tobacco.

The report follows the 2020 state Legislature’s failed attempt to pass House Bill 2457, known as the Reversing the Youth Tobacco Epidemic Act of 2020. When the COVID pandemic hit, the act was one of many to be set aside while the legislature’s focus turned primarily to budget and federal CARES Act issues.

“A lot of important pieces of legislation fell by the wayside last year because of COVID,” said Rep. Nicole Lowen (D-North Kona). “When we came back, the focus was really narrowed down.”

The act is back in the 2021 session, introduced by a large group of legislators including Big Island Sens. Dru Kanuha (D-Kona, Ka’u) and Joy San Buenaventura (D-Puna, Ka’u) as Senate Bill 63 and by Lowen and fellow Big Island representatives Jeanne Kapela (D-South Kona and parts of Ka‘u and North Kona), Richard Onishi (D-Hilo, Puna) and David Tarnas (D-North and South Kohala, North Kona) as House Bill 1327.

The act is taking aim in all three areas identified as weaknesses by the ALA’s report, proposing to ban the sale of flavored tobacco and to increase the license and permit fees and taxes across the board on tobacco products, including e-liquid and electronic smoking devices by widening the definition of “tobacco products.” A number of related bills propose requiring tobacco products to only be sold in-person, restricting the shipment of tobacco products and allowing citizens to bring a nuisance abatement suit for secondhand smoke entering into their residence.

Seemingly the top priority shared by the Legislature and the American Lung Association is to ban the sale of flavored tobacco products, including e-liquids. The act proposes initial fines of $1,000 for a first offense, rising to a $5,000 fine for repeat offenders.

“With one in three high schoolers in Hawaii vaping, our youth are becoming the next generation addicted to tobacco,” said Pedro Haro, executive director of the American Lung Association in Hawaii. “Youth vaping and tobacco use overall are largely driven by flavored tobacco products. The surge in youth vaping, combined with the fact that smoking increases the chance of severe COVID-19 symptoms, make it more important than ever for Hawaii to implement the proven measures outlined in ‘State of Tobacco Control’ to prevent and reduce tobacco use.”

Lowen said it seems vaping is targeted at youth.

“It’s like an entry-level way to get into nicotine addiction. To me, that piece is really important,” she added of the need to outlaw the sale of flavored tobacco products.

Increased revenue generated from taxing e-liquids and electronic smoking devices at the same level as combustible tobacco, combined with the higher taxes and fees for tobacco products across the board, will go toward funding health and tobacco cessation services including the Hawaii cancer research special fund, the trauma system special fund, the community health centers special fund, the emergency medical services special fund and the Hawaii tobacco prevention and control trust fund.

“This legislation will help fund our hospitals, health centers, paramedics, health educators and researchers, while keeping addictive tobacco products out of the reach of our youth,” said Kanuha. “Keeping keiki healthy has been a focus of mine since my time on the Hawaii County Council, when we were among the first in the nation to raise the age for tobacco sales to 21. I am proud to join my colleagues at the Capitol in continuing this important work.”
Source: Hawaii Tribune Herald

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