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First state raises smoking age to 21

ERIC FEFERBERG/AFP/GettyImages

HONOLULU -- Hawaii is raising the legal smoking age to 21 for traditional and electronic cigarettes on Jan. 1, becoming the first state in the nation to do so.

Public health officials are hoping that by making it more difficult for young people to get their hands on cigarettes, they will keep them from developing an unhealthy addiction.

"In Hawaii, about one in four students in high school try their first cigarette each year, and one in three who get hooked will die prematurely," said Lola Irvin, administrator with the chronic disease prevention and health promotion division of the Hawaii Department of Health.

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 e-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 New York City. The town of Needham, Massachusetts, raised the smoking age to 21 in 2005, and a decade later the percentage of adults smoking was 50 percent lower than the rest of the state.

Several military bases in Hawaii expressed their support for the move, saying 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."

Rear Adm. John Fuller, commander of Navy Region Hawaii, countered those arguments in a blog post, saying "If someone is young enough to fight for their country, they should be free from addiction to a deadly drug."

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.

The Health Department has distributed about 4,000 signs to 650 vendors, said Lila Johnson, public health educator at the agency. To reach tourists, officials have been meeting with representatives from the tourism industry, business and hotels, and officials plan to produce signs in different languages, she said.

"People are going to be coming in and out of our state that aren't aware of it," Johnson said. "It's a matter of education. We hope to see a lot more states picking it up so we're not the only one."

Sabrina Olaes, 18, said she started organizing events to educate her classmates about the dangers of smoking after getting frustrated finding herself surrounded by fumes from electronic cigarettes in the girl's bathroom at her school.

She called the tobacco industry's marketing practices deceptive, and said some of the flavors of electronic cigarettes are targeted at young people. But her smoking friends didn't always want to hear what she had to say.

"It's not easy conveying your opinions to people who may not agree with you, and I've definitely made a lot of enemies, but also a lot of allies," Olaes said. "Even though you don't get them to quit right away, you do get them to second-guess their choices."