Governor Igne of Hawaii has signed into law historic legislation, making Hawaii the first state in the US to raise the minimum legal sale age (MLSA) for tobacco to 21, effective January 1, 2016. The law prohibits anyone under the age of 21 from smoking, buying, or possessing tobacco products, including electronic smoking devices, and there is no grandfather clause. This means once the law goes into effect, current 18-20 year olds will no longer legally be able to use or purchase tobacco products.
Currently, the minimum age to purchase tobacco products in most US states is 18. However, four states (Alaska, Alabama, New Jersey, and Utah) have a minimum age of 19, and momentum is building across the country to raise the MLSA to 21 to prevent more youth from initiating tobacco use. The Big Island of Hawaii, Hawaii County, passed legislation to raise the MLSA to 21 in November 2013. As of June 2015, 84 municipalities in eight states have raised the MLSA to 21, and a measure to do so has been proposed on a state-wide basis and are still pending in California, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington. California is the closest to following in Hawaii’s footsteps, as their state senate voted to raise the MLSA to 21earlier this month, but the bill must still pass the state assembly and be signed by the governor.
Hawaii’s new law is not without teeth. It includes fines for any person under 21 who purchases tobacco ($10 for first offense, $50 for subsequent offenses or 48-72 hrs of community service) as well as fines for retailers or people who sell to anyone under 21 ($500 for first violation, $500-$2000 for subsequent violations).
Why Raise the Age?
Almost 95% of current adult smokers started before they were 21. Over 3.6 million middle and high school students smoke. According to the 2012 Surgeon General’s report, youth initiation is a major factor in the tobacco epidemic. But raising the MLSA could prevent more youth from ever picking up the habit. Earlier this year, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) released a report on the public health effects of raising the MLSA. According to the report, if the MLSA were raised to 21 now, it could prevent 223,000 premature deaths, 50,000 deaths from lung cancer, and 4.2 million years of life lost. The IOM projects that smoking prevalence would drop by an additional 12% if the MLSA were raised to 21.
Raising the MLSA works not only by making it illegal for youth under the age of 21 to purchase tobacco products, but also by reducing the number of people in their social circles who they can get tobacco from, i.e. making it so 15 and 16 year olds can’t get cigarettes from their 18-20 year old friends.
Read more about why policies raising the minimum legal sale age to 21 matters for point of sale tobacco control and reducing youth tobacco consumption.