Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, Hawai’i lawmakers were working to address another public health issue that has plagued the state: the high rates of youth vaping amongst Hawai’i teens. Lawmakers have introduced bills that would ban flavored tobacco products, criminalize their usage and raise the purchasing age for all tobacco to 100 years old.

While well-intentioned, these proposals would do little to halt youth tobacco usage. In fact, if enacted, they will have severe consequences, such as increased black-market sales and proliferation of unregulated products, which could affect not only young people but also current adults who smoke.

Of course, addressing youth e-cigarette usage is an important issue, especially considering that more than eight percent of Hawai’i high school students smoke far more harmful combustible cigarettes. This high youth smoking rate has prompted Hawai’i lawmakers to introduce various measures to decrease access to all tobacco products based on the unproven theory that e-cigarettes may lead young people to take up smoking. Proponents of a flavor ban also point to the recent outbreak of the vape-related lung disease as another reason why more stringent laws are needed to protect the health of Hawai’i keiki.

However, much of the information about the once-mysterious vape-related lung illness was not accurate. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) stated that almost all patients who suffered from the illness were vaping black-market THC-containing e-liquids, not nicotine-containing e-cigarettes. Sadly, bills like those proposed in Hawai’i didn’t account for this new information. So they would not protect people from this illness because it would do nothing to address THC liquids, which were the true culprit of this lung disease.

To make matters worse, bills that ban and over criminalize e-cigarette usage can also have opposite, unintended effects. Australia has some of the strictest laws on e-cigarettes. They have banned the possession and use of nicotine containing e-cigarettes, which means violating these laws can lead to a fine up to $45,000 and even prison time. Despite these measures, Australia has actually seen an increase in e-cigarette usage. Here in the United States, various forms of e-cigarette prohibitions, like the one imposed in San Francisco, will simply create unregulated black markets for such products, which could lead to public health crises––much like the THC vaping illness that claimed dozens of lives already.

Advocates who are opposed to e-cigarettes have also used the current pandemic to support their crusade for stricter laws and legislation. They have pointed to studies that say e-cigarettes could worsen the impact of COVID-19 even though supporting data is nonexistent at the moment. In fact, doctors have stated that combustible cigarettes are a much greater cause for concern during this pandemic.

The truth is––compared to other nicotine replacement therapies, such as nicotine patches, gum, and lozenges––e-cigarettes are twice as effective at helping people quit combustible cigarettes. The CDC has even stated that “e-cigarettes have the potential to benefit adult smokers if used as a complete substitute for regular cigarettes and other smoked tobacco products.”

Hawaii’s youth e-cigarette usage is definitely an issue of concern, and that is why federal lawmakers have already taken steps to deter the use of tobacco products. Last year, Congress passed a bill that raised the minimum age to purchase tobacco products to 21, aligning laws across the country.

Ultimately, banning and criminalizing the use of vapes and e-cigarettes will not do much to curb youth tobacco usage. Instead, it will have profoundly negative ramifications, deter smokers from using less harmful e-cigarettes, and create a dangerous, unregulated e-cigarette black market in the Aloha State.

Image credit: SVETOV DMITRII

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