Monday, Feb. 26, 2024 |
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A variety of vaping products is shown. (Handout photo/ Special to west Hawaii Today)
Big Island students gathered Tuesday to urge the Hawaii County Council to approve a ban of flavored tobacco products.
At a meeting of the council’s Policy Committee on Health, Safety and Well-Being, dozens of residents voiced support for Bill 102, a measure that would prevent the sale or promotion of any tobacco product bearing any flavor other than tobacco, in an effort to reduce vaping and e-cigarette use among teens.
Several students made impassioned pleas for county intervention. Kamehameha Schools junior Zoe Gacayan said eight out of 10 students who use e-cigarette products begin using them because of their sweet, often candy-like flavors.
“It affects us every day, for those of us who do vape or don’t,” Gacayan said. “It affects our physical health, mental health, relationships and our education.”
Gacayan described conditions at her school, explaining that all of the school bathrooms have been shut down because of students skipping classes to vape in a restroom, leading to an elaborate pass system that tracks how long students take for bathroom or water breaks, which she said feels like an invasion of privacy.
Honokaa High School senior Destin Martinez Jr. said more than half of the students at his school regularly vape wherever and whenever they can.
“Also, some of the flavors are pointed at us,” Martinez said. “There’s Hawaii POG, there’s ube, and there’s many more that are pointing at Hawaii youth alone.”
Kealoha Madriaga, West Hawaii tobacco coordinator for the Hawaii Public Health Institute, made a presentation before the committee highlighting tactics used by the tobacco industry to entice young people to use e-cigarettes, some of which contain the same amount of nicotine as nearly 600 regular cigarettes.
Jen Valera, co-founder of the Hawaii Island Youth Academy, said the impact of that amount of nicotine on a developing brain — which already hasn’t developed proper impulse control — is significant.
“With their brains still developing and being introduced to these substances, it really diminishes their impulse control,” Valera said. “So, they’re even more moody, they’re making even worse decisions, and they’re delaying their brain development.”
These impacts are exacerbating mental health problems among youth, such as depression and suicidal ideation, Valera said, despite vaping being used as a coping mechanism for those very problems.
“They’re fiends,” Valera said of youth vapers. “But they’re so young, they don’t understand how to manage it. On top of that, they know it’s illegal … but their brains are afraid, they don’t want to come out and say, ‘Hey, I need help.’ … They feel that spike of adrenaline, they’re getting those feel-good hormones, but once it wears off, they’re dealing with anxiety worse, their mood swings are way out of control.”
Valera also noted that frequent vaping has impacts on the user’s oral and lung health, the latter of which can manifest in a condition called “e-cigarette or vaping product use-associated lung injury,” or EVALI.
EVALI can cause shortness of breath, chest pains and more because of the accumulation of fluid in the lungs.
Hilo Councilwoman Sue Lee Loy, who introduced the measure, said the proposal mirrors a similar prohibition established by the City and County of Honolulu in October, and is intended to eventually replace state tobacco regulations, which do not ban the sale of flavored tobacco products.
County Corporation Counsel Elizabeth Strance said the state’s regulations supersede any county tobacco laws. So Bill 102, if passed, would only take effect if the state lets the counties regulate the sale of tobacco products.
She said that should the state drop its own regulations, the more restrictive county ordnances would then take effect.
Most of Lee Loy’s fellow council members supported the measure. However, Kohala Councilwoman Cindy Evans questioned whether all flavors should be included in the ban, such as menthol, which she noted has been a popular tobacco flavor for decades.
But Valera said that an exception for menthol could open the door for tobacco producers to market menthol as “cool mint” or something still appealing to children.
Ultimately, the only vote against the bill came from Ka‘u Councilwoman Michelle Galimba — although Evans was absent from the vote itself. Galimba said she was unsure of whether a flavor ban is the most logical process to achieve the greater goal of protecting children.
“Maybe it’s not far enough, maybe we just get rid of vaping,” Galimba said. “Maybe we need to get rid of e-cigarettes entirely. … And the fact that (people) aren’t supposed to have them at all under 21 — maybe it’s an enforcement issue.”
With the committee recommending the bill’s passage, it will next be heard at a future meeting of the full County Council.
Email Michael Brestovansky at email@example.com.
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