Kokua Line

By June Watanabe

Wednesday, November 3, 1999

Hawaii teens can smoke,
but cannot buy tobacco

Question: What is the law regarding tobacco and teen-agers? I know it is illegal to sell tobacco products to minors, but are teen-agers allowed to be in possession of tobacco?

Answer: There are a number of states where possession of tobacco products by minors is illegal. But Hawaii is not one of them.

It is not illegal for teens under 18 to be in possession of, or to smoke, tobacco in Hawaii, although they cannot legally purchase tobacco.

State law (Hawaii Penal Code, Chapter 709, Section 709-908) says it is unlawful for a minor under 18 to purchase any tobacco product, and for anyone to sell or furnish tobacco in any shape or form to such a minor.

There are criminal penalties ascribed to selling or furnishing tobacco to a minor or to a minor making such a purchase, but there are no penalties for a minor caught smoking or holding tobacco (although schools may have their own sanctions).

Julian Lipsher of the state Department of Health's Tobacco Prevention and Education Project said the department has been against criminalizing tobacco use by teens.

"The tobacco industry itself has tried to advance laws that would criminalize minors' possession of tobacco," Lipsher said.

But "we find the industry is attempting to shift the responsibility from itself," as manufacturers who spend "literally billions of dollars a year in promoting the product," and as "merchants who sell the product to youths."

Until there are "limitations on the industry's ability to advertise and to promote the product, and equal responsibility on merchants," the department believes there should not be criminal penalties for minors, Lipsher said.

He noted that fines for selling tobacco to minors have gone up substantially, including a mandatory $500 fine for the first offense.

In the Legislature last year, there were unsuccessful efforts to pass a law to restrict a minor's driver's license if he or she were caught smoking. The belief was that this would discourage teen smoking by taking away a meaningful privilege.

But critics argued this would be unequal punishment (for example, Oahu teens have access to bus transportation but teens on the neighbor islands don't) and that the punishment would be unduly harsh, not only driving up insurance rates, but resulting in criminal records that could affect college opportunities.

So even though it sounded like a good idea, Lipsher said his office could not support the effort because "there would be significant, unintended consequences ... it doesn't play out as you would expect."


To individuals smoking while at gasoline stations. Once I saw a woman smoking in the car, while her husband was pumping gas. I felt sorry for the toddler in the car.

Another time, a guy had a lit cigarette in his mouth, crossed two islands and put his cigarette in a crack in the wall outside the store, paid for his gas, left the store, got his cigarette, headed to his van, tossed the cigarette on the ground, crushing it as he left. All you have to do is look for cigarette butts on the ground at gas stations. I haven't heard of any gas station fires but I think odds are getting worse if we do not educate these smokers. I reported the two incidents to the station attendant, who did not know what to do. -- A.W.

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