Mayor signs tobacco bill into law


Mayor Billy Kenoi on Thursday signed a bill raising the tobacco sale age to 21, effective July 1.

Hawaii County will join three other counties in the nation — and become the only county in the state — to prohibit tobacco sales to people younger than 21 when the law goes into effect, Kona Councilman Dru Kanuha, who introduced Bill 135 in October, told attendees of the ceremonial signing held at the West Hawaii Civic Center in North Kona. More than a dozen people, including students from Kealakehe High School who pushed for the legislation, were in attendance.

“It showed courage, it showed vision, it showed commitment, but most of all, it showed our collaborative commitment to our children, to our future,” Kenoi said before signing the bill. “This is really a very important piece of legislation because it speaks to our health, it speaks to quality of life of our children and it speaks to our priorities.”

Before Kenoi signed the bill, he acknowledged the emotions surrounding it. He said in the intervening weeks since the bill passed the County Council, he has been approached by people looking to discuss whether or not he would sign it into law.

“I said ‘Yes, I will sign Bill 135’ — it was a lot of work by a lot of people and the voices of our community, especially our teachers and students, came out very strongly for it, and, I have no reason not to sign it,” Kenoi said.

The Hawaii County Council on Nov. 20 unanimously voted 9-0 to pass the bill following three hearings, which drew testimony from proponents, opponents and students around the island. Kenoi had been expected to sign the bill into law following the council’s approval.

“It’s a start of something new and I think it’s going to build a better future for us,” said Emily Gambing, a Kealakehe High School freshman attending the event.

Added Taylor Quanan, a senior at the high school, “Bill 135 means moving toward a healthier and better Hawaii not only for myself but for my younger siblings, as well, so, I’m excited for it.”

The bill doesn’t make it illegal for young people to smoke; it penalizes retail stores for selling tobacco products such as cigarettes, cigars and electronic cigarettes. Retailers selling to underage customers would be subject to a $500 fine for the first offense and from $500 to $2,000 for subsequent offenses. The bill includes a grandfather period for those already older than 18, the current age at which federal law allows people to buy tobacco.

Hawaii County joins two Massachusetts towns and New York City in raising the age to buy cigarettes, cigars, smokeless tobacco, electronic smoking devices and the like to 21. Texas is among the state governments considering such a measure. Alabama, Alaska, New Jersey and Utah have raised the age to 19. Hawaii’s counties can enact legislation more stringent than state law, but not more lenient.

“We care about the health and welfare of our keiki and young adults and more importantly we care about the health and welfare of our whole community,” Kanuha said before adding his signature to the bill.