Health advocates praise vape bill’s passage

Elation. Disbelief. Resolve.

These are some of the reactions to news that the state Legislature approved a bill that health advocates have been asking for year after year to address the state’s youth vaping crisis.


Senate Bill 975 taxes electronic smoking devices and e-liquids at the same level as other tobacco products and prohibits the shipping of vaping products to anyone other than licensed retailers.

The bill now goes to Gov. Josh Green for his signature and, if approved, goes into effect July 1.

State Sen. Karl Rhoads (D-Oahu), who introduced the bill, said he believed years of advocacy finally paid off for these measures aimed at saving lives.

“Some bills take a long time to pass, and this, obviously, was one of them, ” said Rhoads. “It’s a huge win for public health, with both legislatures recognizing again the pernicious nature of nicotine addiction and that the tobacco companies don’t care who dies because of their products.”

The bill was supported by the state Department of Health, Coalition for a Tobacco-Free Hawaii Youth Council, American Heart Association and Hawaii State Teachers Association, among others. It was opposed by the Hawaii Smokers Alliance, Americans for Tax Reform, Volcano Vape Shops and Retail Merchants of Hawaii.

Scott Stensrud, statewide youth coordinator for the Hawaii Public Health Institute, hailed the passage as a win but was still absorbing the news.

“We’ve worked on it so long, ” he said. “You’ve heard so many times of the voter support, so you think you’ve got everything, only to have a poison pill put in the end. It’s kind of shocking when it all works out.”

Stensrud said this landmark legislation comes at a time when a growing variety of vaping products on the market—including ones that look like highlighters or flash drives that are easy to hide or are disposable—are addicting a new generation of youth.

Members of the Coalition for a Tobacco-Free Hawaii Youth Council have been pushing for this bill, as well as a ban on flavored tobacco products—which died this legislative session—from their middle or high school years to graduation and beyond, he said.

The youth have put their boots on the ground to earn support for the bills, making presentations to neighborhood boards and speaking to state legislators. They have seen the impact on their own friends, families and communities.

Some continue to advocate for these bills even as college students and beyond.

Theresa Ng, a former Youth Council member and University of Hawaii at Manoa graduate, is one of them.

“After many years of advocating, it has been so encouraging to see the passage of SB 975, ” said Ng in an email. “It feels bittersweet that it took this long but it was especially rewarding to see the bill pass now as I work in the Capitol. There is still much to be done about e-cigarettes and reducing their disparate impact in Hawaii. But it is a great time to celebrate this first win.”

Tax on vaping Electronic smoking devices are currently not subject to the state’s excise tax on tobacco products—and can often be purchased at lower prices than cigarettes.

The bill amends the definition of tobacco products to include electronic smoking devices, including e-cigarettes, e-cigars, vape pens and e-liquids. Starting Jan. 1, the excise tax has been set at 70 % of the wholesale price of each e-smoking device or e-liquid.

Retailers selling vaping products must also have a retail tobacco permit of $50 for each place of business doing so, and specify whether they sell e-smoking devices, e-liquids or both.

Those in opposition testified that higher prices on vaping products could push consumers, including adults who consider it a smoking cessation tool, back to combustible cigarettes.

Scott Rasak, Volcano’s chief operating officer, said the “tobacco parody tax ” on vape products would be extremely detrimental to the vaping industry in Hawaii, made up of hundreds of small businesses providing local jobs.

The Retail Merchants of Hawaii expressed concerns about hurting small, locally owned businesses and making electronic smoking products more desirable on the black market—when many goods on the black market have been stolen from retailers.

ABC Stores said it would cause hardship for many retailers and feared more smash-and-grab incidents.

But Lindsey Freitas, advocacy director of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, said the tax on vaping products is an important part of a larger package of legislation needed to address the youth vaping crisis.

Youth tend to be price-sensitive, so an increase in price is expected to deter them from purchasing vaping products.

Additionally, the bill addresses the ease at which youth can purchase vaping products online, with items shipped directly to their homes. Even though it is illegal for those under 21 to do so, many are able to get around the age verification process.

With this bill, shipment of tobacco products, including e-cigarettes and e-liquids, can be shipped only to a licensed retailer.

“The fact that these products have been coming into the state without the same oversight as other tobacco products is definitely something that has contributed to use, ” she said. “I’m really excited to see this happen.”

Many other states have moved to tax their vaping products, she said, but the overall costs have to be high enough to deter youth from buying them to be effective.

According to the nonprofit, areas with the highest cigarette excise tax rates include Washington, D.C., which has a tax of $4.50 per pack, and New York state, which has a tax of $4.35 per pack. States with the lowest rates include Georgia and Missouri, which tax only 37 and 17 cents per pack, respectively. Hawaii ranks eighth, with a tax of $3.20 per pack.

The estimated national toll of smoking-caused health care costs, the nonprofit said, is about $20.52 per pack.

The American Lung Association, which supports parity between cigarette and e-cigarette taxation, permitting and licensing, lauded the move.

“For too long, vaping companies have enjoyed the lack of taxes and regulation that allowed the industry to addict Hawaii’s youth, ” said ALA Hawaii Executive Director Pedro Hara in a statement. “Senate Bill 975 is a huge leap forward as vaping will finally be taxed at the same rate as other tobacco products are in the state. We know that research has shown that taxes reduce the use of tobacco, particularly amongst our youth.”

Flavored tobacco ban Health advocates say they will return in 2024 to push once again for a ban on the sales of flavored tobacco and vaping products in Hawaii, as they have for nearly a decade now.

By marketing flavors such as cotton candy and POG or packaging them to look like local beverages, Stensrud said, these companies are misleading youth into thinking vapes are harmless when they usually contain high levels of nicotine and other unhealthy ingredients, and are highly addictive.

The shift to vaping is clear, with an estimated 32 % of high schoolers saying they have tried an e-cigarette, compared with 13.3 % who have ever tried a cigarette, according to a 2021 youth behavior survey.

A slew of legislative bills this year—most of which died—aimed to regulate flavored vaping products that health advocates say are intentionally marketed to entice and addict youth. DOH says the tobacco industry spends an estimated $26 million on marketing in the state each year.

House Bill 551, which proposed the ban on sales of flavored tobacco products, died in the state Senate in March when it was not scheduled for a hearing.

An attempt to pass a similar bill in 2022 made it to the governor’s desk but contained a loophole that advocates said rendered it ineffective and was ultimately vetoed.

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