Almost a third of high school students in Hawai‘i use e-cigarettes, but “vapes” might dissipate quickly under a ban being proposed by the Legislature this week.

During a hearing on Senate Bill 3118 on Wednesday, Sen. Jarrett Keohokalole said that advocates of a ban “fear that the flavors are targeting the youth and encouraging youth to use, as well as fostering addiction in adolescence.” 

The bill, introduced by Gov. David Ige’s administration, asserts that tobacco companies have falsely promoted flavored tobacco products and continue to do so today by mislabeling them as “tobacco free” without noting the presence of nicotine, a highly addictive chemical, still present in the e-cigarettes.  

The measure would ban flavored tobacco products as well as any e-liquids labeled as nicotine free.

Keohokalole, chairman of the Senate Health Committee, put off a preliminary vote on SB 3118 until Friday. Similar measures have failed to win approval by the whole Legislature in recent years.

“We have members as young as seven reporting tobacco use,” Peggy Mierzwa, an advocate for the bill, said during the hearing Wednesday. She also works for local insurance agency AlohaCare. 

Although the consumption of tobacco among the youth is considered a national problem, experts say it’s an outsized problem locally.

“The numbers of e-cigarette users in our kids in Hawaii is very alarming, and we are among the highest rates in the country, if not the highest,” Don Weisman, who represents the American Heart Association, told lawmakers Wednesday. “The most at risk populations are those who are being lured in by the tobacco industries marketing, targeting them, including Native Hawaiians, Pacific Islanders and the LGBTQ+ community.” 

Opponents of the bill argue that e-cigarettes are not the root cause of tobacco-related public health problems.

“By far the most harmful tobacco product is one that is burned and then inhaled by the user. In the U.S., these are predominantly cigarettes,” Karen Gerlach, who has had 25 years of experience in the public health tobacco control field, said in her written testimony. “Everyone places combustible cigarettes as the most harmful product, and estimates place e-cigarettes as 90%-95% less harmful than cigarettes.”

But more than 4.6 million students have reported being current tobacco users. And that has some advocates worried that youth vaping is driving tobacco use later in life.

During the hearing, Amanda Fernandes, policy and advocacy director at the Hawaii Public Health Institute, cited a 2017 study that found that for every adult that quits smoking using e-cigarettes, 81 youth and young adults who would not have considered smoking will become cigarette smokers, starting with e-cigarettes.

If SB 3118 ultimately clears the Legislature, the ban will begin Jan. 1, 2023.