Health advocates in Merced County are applauding Hawaii’s implementation of a new law making it illegal for anyone younger than 21 to smoke traditional or electronic cigarettes.
As of Jan. 1, Hawaii became the first state in the nation to raise its legal smoking age to 21.
Local tobacco control advocates called the move a step forward and an example for other states.
Jessica Kazakos, program coordinator for the Merced County Tobacco Control Coalition, said the new law could decrease cigarette accessibility to teens and help deter smoking overall.
“Studies show that almost 90 percent of smokers started before they were 18,” Kazakos said. “Because of brain development, kids can get addicted to nicotine quicker.”
In California, proposals to change the tobacco-buying age from 18 to 21 made their way through the California Senate before stalling in the Assembly last fall.
Kazakos said it is difficult to know if the state will see any changes in tobacco control policies in 2016, but the Merced coalition is aiming to ramp up education efforts countywide.
“Education is key, especially for our youth,” Kazakos said. “They need to understand how dangerous and addictive nicotine is.
“E-cigarettes, those are really popular right now, but also dangerous,” she added.
In Hawaii, officials included electronic smoking devices in the law after noticing a spike in the number of students trying electronic cigarettes. The percentage of Hawaii public high school students smoking electronic cigarettes quadrupled over four years to 22 percent in 2015, and among middle-schoolers, 12 percent reported using them in 2015, a sixfold increase over four years.
While Hawaii is the first state to raise the smoking age to 21, more than 100 cities and counties have already done so, including Santa Clara County, whose law also took effect starting Jan. 1.
The new rule in Hawaii also received support from the military, which said their bases would comply with the state law.
“We see it as a fitness and readiness issue,” said Bill Doughty, spokesman for the Navy Region Hawaii. “When we can prevent sailors from smoking or using tobacco, if we can get them to quit, then that improves their fitness and readiness, and it saves them a ton of money, too.”
But critics say that if a man or woman is old enough to potentially die defending their country, they’re old enough to make a decision about smoking. “If you can serve the country, you should be able to have a drink and a cigarette,” said Justin Warren, 22, an X-ray technician in the Army.
Taylor Dwyer, 21, also an Army X-ray technician, said smoking is a “way for us to come down after the work day. It’s not like a regular work day. It’s a lot more stressful, especially for people who are in combat jobs.”
As the state begins enforcing the law, the first three months of the year will be dedicated to educating the public, so warnings will be handed out instead of fines, officials said.
After that, young people caught smoking will be fined $10 for the first offense and $50 or community service for any further offenses. Retailers caught selling cigarettes to people under 21 can be fined $500 for the first offense and up to $2,000 for later offenses.
Meanwhile, in 2016, the Merced County Tobacco Control Coalition will continue to push for the end of illegal cigarette sales to minors. Kazakos said that about two months ago, a group of five teens were trained to go into 21 stores in Atwater seeking to buy cigarettes.
“(Illegal) sales are still happening and many were about to happen,” Kazakos said. “These kids are under 18 and look their age.”
Kazakos said this only proves that there is still a lot of work to be done in educating youth, store owners and the general public when it comes to tobacco policies.