Hawaii Breathes New Life into Tobacco Debate

State becomes the first to raise its legal smoking age to 21. Will more follow suit?


Kristina Peters, Assistant Managing Editor, CSP – September 2015

Hawaii captured headlines June 19 after Gov. David Ige signed legislation making the nation’s 50th state the first to prohibit the sale, purchase, possession or consumption of tobacco products (including electronic cigarettes) for anyone younger than 21 years old.

The measure—effective Jan. 1—could potentially have a domino effect as several other states look to pass similar bills. Contenders include Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and California, which all have pending 21-and-older tobacco legislation. (Similar measures have failed in several states, including Rhode Island, Oregon and Utah. For more on local regulations, see p. 134.)

But first, lawmakers must consider the potential consequences of raising the legal age to buy and use tobacco products and whether such action would increase or decrease underage use.

Ongoing Debate

Experimentation with tobacco almost always begins at a young age: Among adults who have ever smoked cigarettes daily, 86.9% tried their first cigarette by age 18 and an additional 11.5% tried their first cigarette between ages 18 and 26, according to the 2014 Surgeon General report “The Health Consequences of Smoking—50 Years of Progress.”

This early exposure often leads to greater levels of nicotine dependency and continued smoking beyond adolescence, as further shown in the Surgeon General report: More than 64% of adult smokers began to smoke daily by age 18, and 22.7% began to smoke daily between ages 18 and 26.

It is for these reasons organizations such as the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids approve of raising the age of sale for tobacco products to 21. Vince Willmore, vice president of communications for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, Washington, D.C., says the agency “strongly supports” such measures and encourages other states and communities to adopt them.

Increasing the sale age, Willmore says, “will reduce tobacco use among youth and young adults—age groups … that are heavily targeted by the tobacco industry.”

But NATO executive director Thomas Briant cautions that raising the legal age “may cause some underage youth to seek out tobacco products for the very reason that they are not allowed to buy and use them. … This could lead to youth relying more heavily on social sources of tobacco products (friends, family members, strangers) and undermine the goal of reducing tobacco use by youth.”

According to a study released by the Journal of School Health in August 2014, 86% of underage youth obtain cigarettes from these social sources.

But the Institute of Medicine says a higher tobacco age limit will likely mean a smaller network of legal-age smokers for nonsmoking youth to obtain tobacco products from. If all states were to raise the minimum age to 21, the institute says, there would be a 12% decrease in cigarette-smoking prevalence across the nation by 2100.

Alcohol Parallel

Raising the legal-age limit of tobacco to 21 draws a comparison to the legal-age limit of alcohol.

According to the National Youth Tobacco Survey and the Youth Risk Behavior Study—both conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC)—alcohol use is more prevalent among teenagers than cigarette use, despite its legal-age limit of 21 in the United States.

The studies found smoking among high school students was at 9.2% in 2014 (down from 15.8% in 2011), while drinking alcohol was at 34.9%.

“A conclusion can be drawn that mandating an age of 21 for the purchase and consumption of alcohol has not created an impediment for more than one-third of minors who are currently consuming alcohol,” Briant wrote in a recent Tobacco E­News story. “This … raises the more serious health-related question of whether such a change of purchase could actually result in an increase in underage tobacco use.”

More States to Follow?

But the issue is just as much of a matter of personal rights, with the argument being that Americans are given other responsibilities at age 18.

“Personal rights are important because government and society impose responsibilities and duties on those who have reached the age of 18, and the magnitude of those obligations should also allow a person of adult age to choose what legal products they desire to purchase,” Briant wrote.

Some of these responsibilities include voting, military service, marriage, divorce, candidacy for public office and prosecution as an adult for crimes committed.

However, personal rights aside, it seems most Americans approve of a 21-and-older tobacco age limit.

Three out of four American adults—including seven in 10 cigarette smokers—favor raising the minimum age of sale for all tobacco products to 21, according to an article by the CDC. While an overwhelming majority of adults favored the policy overall, favorability is slightly higher among older adults and adults who never smoked. In contrast, 11% of adults strongly opposed making 21 the legal age of sale, while 14% somewhat opposed such measures.

If more states were to follow Hawaii’s lead, it could come at a cost for retailers no longer able to sell tobacco products to anyone age 18, 19 or 20, depending upon the state’s previous age limit. (Alabama, Alaska, Utah and New Jersey all have tobacco age limits of 19.) Until then, advocates, opponents and retailers alike will closely watch what happens in Hawaii after the new year.

Components of Hawaii’s Tobacco Law

Beginning Jan. 1, Hawaii will prohibit the sale, purchase, possession or consumption of tobacco products (including electronic cigarettes) for anyone younger than 21 years old. Here’s a look at other components of the law.

  • No grandfather clause: Eighteen- and 19-year-olds who can smoke legally now will not be able to next year.
  • Fines for retailers: Stores caught selling tobacco products to minors will be fıned $500 for the fırst offense and $500 to $2,000 for each violation after that.
  • Fines for minors: Anyone under age 21 caught using tobacco products will be fıned $10 for the fırst offense and $50 for subsequent offenses. Violators also may have to perform 48 to 72 hours of community service


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