Hawaii Counties Seek More Power to Regulate Tobacco Sales

A bill that would allow Hawaii counties to enact stricter rules on tobacco products than the state is facing an uncertain fate in the House Finance Committee. The bill aims to restore the counties’ authority to regulate the sale of cigarettes, tobacco products and e-cigarettes, which was taken away by a 2016 law that gave the state exclusive jurisdiction over tobacco taxation. Supporters of the bill say it is needed to protect the health of Hawaii’s youth and communities from the harms of flavored tobacco and vaping products.

According to the Coalition for a Tobacco-Free Hawaii’s Youth Council, flavored tobacco products are a major factor in the initiation and addiction of young people to nicotine. The Youth Council, which consists of students from more than 80 middle, high school and college campuses, has been advocating for the end of flavored tobacco sales for the past six years. However, their efforts have been unsuccessful at the state level, despite the evidence that flavors like Rainbow Candy, Fruit Punch, Ocean Sonic and POG attract and hook kids to tobacco products.

The Youth Council also points out that flavored tobacco products disproportionately affect communities of color, especially African Americans, who have been targeted by the tobacco industry with menthol cigarettes for decades. Menthol masks the harshness of tobacco smoke and makes it easier to inhale and become addicted. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 85% of African American smokers use menthol cigarettes, compared to 29% of white smokers. Menthol smokers also have lower rates of quitting and higher rates of tobacco-related diseases and deaths.

Counties Take Action to Ban Flavored Tobacco Sales

In the absence of state action, some counties have taken matters into their own hands and passed ordinances to ban the sale of flavored tobacco products in their jurisdictions. The City and County of Honolulu and the County of Hawai‘i have both enacted such bans, which are set to take effect in January 2024. These bans cover all tobacco products, including cigarettes, cigars, chewing tobacco and e-cigarettes, that have a characterizing flavor other than tobacco. The counties hope that by eliminating the availability and appeal of flavored tobacco products, they can reduce the tobacco use and addiction among their residents, especially the youth.

However, these county ordinances may face legal challenges from the tobacco industry, which argues that they are preempted by the state law that gives the state sole authority over tobacco regulation. The tobacco industry also claims that banning flavored tobacco products will hurt small businesses, create a black market and infringe on the rights of adult consumers. The industry has filed lawsuits against similar bans in other states, such as California and Massachusetts, and has lobbied against federal legislation to ban menthol cigarettes and flavored e-cigarettes.

Bill to Restore Counties’ Authority Stalled in House Committee

To address the legal uncertainty and to empower the counties to protect their communities from tobacco harms, a bill was introduced in the Hawaii legislature that would clarify that the state’s jurisdiction over tobacco products is solely for taxation purposes. The bill, House Bill 1778, would allow the counties to adopt ordinances and regulations to regulate smoking or the sale of tobacco products as long as they do not conflict with and are more stringent than state law. The bill has the support of the Hawaii Department of Health and the Coalition for a Tobacco-Free Hawaii’s Youth Council, as well as several health organizations and community groups.

The bill passed the House Health, Human Services and Homelessness Committee and the House Judiciary and Hawaiian Affairs Committee with unanimous votes in February. However, it has been referred to the House Finance Committee, where it has not been scheduled for a hearing. The bill faces a deadline of March 1 to cross over to the Senate, otherwise it will die in the House. The House Finance Committee is chaired by Rep. Kyle Yamashita, who represents House District 12, which includes parts of Maui. Maui Now reached out to Rep. Yamashita for comment, but did not hear back at the time of this article.

The Youth Council urges the House Finance Committee to hear and pass the bill, and to send a clear message to the state to protect Hawaii’s keiki statewide or restore the counties’ authority to regulate tobacco sales. They also call on the public to support the bill and to contact their representatives to voice their opinions. They believe that the bill is a crucial step towards a tobacco-free Hawaii and a healthier future for all.

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