Quit smoking? Hawaii sends mixed messages on smoking

Quit smoking? Hawaii didn't pass bills to raise the minimum smoking age to 21 or ban smoking on public beaches or at the University of Hawaii. But bills that would restrict smoking in public housing, restrict sales of flavored cigarettes, and make smoking more expensive are moving forward.

Hawaii lawmakers have killed proposals aimed at raising the legal age for buying tobacco to 21 and clamping down on smoking at beaches statewide. But they're advancing bills that would restrict smoking and make it more expensive, continuing a trend in Hawaii to crack down on smoking in public places.

"It's moving that way," said Rep. Karl Rhoads, a Democrat representing Kalihi and Chinatown. "It tends to have a cascading effect. The fewer and fewer smokers there are, the more restrictions we're going to see."

About one in seven adults in Hawaii smokes.

Rhoads introduced HB2577, which would confine smoking in public housing to designated areas at least 25 feet from buildings. Chronic violators could be evicted.

Rhoads said the measure, which passed the House, is aimed at preventing secondhand smoke from affecting sick people and kids in buildings where the units share ventilation systems.

"There is the potential for some real difficult choices to be made both for the tenant and the authority," Rhoads said, adding Hawaii's climate makes the bill more humane. "At least you're not saying, 'You've got to go out and smoke in minus-5 degree weather.'"

Sen. Josh Green said the Senate Health Committee, which he chairs, likely will move the bill forward.

"Anything to decrease smoking in society has a net benefit," said Green, a Democrat representing Kona and Kau.

The Senate passed SB2222, which would prohibit the sale of flavored tobacco products, including menthol. Another successful Senate bill, SB2495, would regulate and tax electronic smoking devices much the same as tobacco. It also would restrict the use of those devices in workplaces and in public.

While electronic smoking devices deliver nicotine without the carcinogenic miasma of tobacco smoke, the devices are under scrutiny because of their reputed appeal to teenagers. A study published this week in JAMA Pediatrics found that young people who "vape," or use electronic cigarettes, are more likely to take up real smoking.

"We know it's becoming increasingly attractive to youth," said Jessica Yamauchi, executive director of the nonprofit Coalition for a Tobacco-Free Hawaii. "Our concern is the people who aren't smoking cigarettes but picking up the electronic devices because they're cool."

Another Senate measure is expected to raise taxes on most non-cigarette tobacco products.

This legislative session hasn't been all bad news for smokers. Bills that would've outlawed tobacco sales to anyone younger than 21 have stalled. Opponents of those measures argued 18-year-olds who can serve in the military should be able to buy their own smokes.

A bill to ban smoking and tobacco use on the University of Hawaii premises didn't survive the House. A measure that would have banned smoking around kids on beaches, at parks, at bus stops and in vehicles limped out of the 2013 session and languished this year.

One surviving bill that counters the anti-smoking trend would cap the tax on large cigars at 50 cents, effectively slashing taxes on the most expensive stogies. That rate now runs at 50 percent of a cigar's wholesale price.

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Sam Eifling can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sameifling.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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