Vaping-related illness and policy in Hawaii

The Hawaii Department of Health (DOH) announced last week that it is investigating the first report of a possible vaping-associated severe respiratory illness in a Hawaii Island youth. At the time of the announcement, the individual was still hospitalized and receiving treatment while health officials worked to determine the cause of the illness.

As of September 11, 2019, there have been 380 confirmed or probable cases of lung disease associated with vaping, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). These cases come from 36 different states and the U.S. Virgin Islands. On Tuesday, the 7th person died from vaping-related causes.


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As the number of lung illnesses and injuries climb, cities and states across the country are working to address the public health crisis. In Texas, lawmakers signed a law raising the minimum age to purchase tobacco and vaping products to 21, and over the summer, San Francisco became the first in the nation to ban the sale of e-cigarettes altogether. This past year, Utah also passed a bill adding a sin tax to vaping products to be in line with taxes on other tobacco products in the state. 

During the 2019 legislative session, Hawaii lawmakers also brought forth several policies to address the epidemic. One such bill would have put in place a statewide ban on flavored tobacco products for vaping devices.  

Prior to the start of the 2019 legislative session, we sat down with Trish La Chica, Policy and Advocacy Director at Hawaii Public Health Institute, to discuss youth vaping and HIPHI’s push to end the sale of flavored tobacco. 

“You know, our state has really benefited from a decline in our adult smoking rates. We’re among the lowest in the nation at 13.1 percent but we’re seeing the opposite with the rise of youth vaping rates, and we are experiencing a vaping epidemic. A lot of our schools are getting frustrated with what they’re seeing. Our youth continue to be marketed by products that look and feel like candy, and so our youth advocates this year will be focusing on ending the sale of flavored tobacco,” said La Chica.

The bill passed in the state Senate on a 23-1 vote, but the House Finance Committee ultimately deferred the bill in April. 

The legislature also failed to pass legislation this year that would have added a tax on e-liquids, and taxed the products similar to other tobacco products. 

Senator Roz Baker, Chair of the Senate Commerce, Consumer Protection, and Health Committee, pointed to the failure of these two policies as one of her biggest disappointments of the session in this Q&A.

“The other two areas that I was most disappointed in: we couldn’t get a flavored e-liquid sale ban to minors. And we couldn’t get them included in the tobacco products tax so that we could tax them greater than just the general excise tax.”

In the May interview, Baker referenced a separate bill that made it through both chambers that would require teachers to confiscate e-cigarettes from students under age 21.

“We did get one important bill though — it waived liability for teachers and enabled them to confiscate any e-cigarettes, Juuls and those sorts of devices, and any of the paraphernalia that goes with it, both to seize it and dispose of it.”

However, Gov. Ige vetoed the bill in July citing “implementation concerns and unknown costs relating to certain provisions” in the bill.

Hawai’i Public Radio reports that more regulations will likely come in 2020. 

In regards to the new report of the possible vaping-related respiratory illness in Hawaii, DOH Director Bruce Anderson says to use e-cigarettes with caution.

“We are cautioning people about using e-cigarettes and advise against using unregulated THC containing vaping products,” said Anderson. “We are monitoring the situation locally and nationally, and coordinating with federal and state partners to stay up-to-date on the latest information available. We have alerted Hawai‘i health care providers and emergency workers of this issue so they are aware, and will continue to investigate this possible local case and work to determine the cause of their illness.”