Schools on Kaua‘i have continued to look at educational alternatives to criminalizing our youth for using any tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, while some state lawmakers have wanted to increase penalties on our youth. Studies have shown that laws prohibiting the possession, use, and purchase of tobacco products by minors (also known as PUP laws) are ineffective and inequitable. PUP laws unfairly punish and stigmatize youth who become addicted at a young age as a result of the tobacco industry’s aggressive marketing. PUP laws are a known tobacco industry tactic that shifts the blame away from the industry’s irresponsible marketing and retailers’ violation of our Tobacco 21 law. Further, PUP laws are not effective in reducing or preventing underage tobacco use as they divert policy attention from effective tobacco control strategies and reinforce the tobacco industry’s position that parents or guardians alone are responsible for restricting a minors’ access to tobacco.

However, on Kaua‘i, schools and elected officials have been working to find a compromise that would be more likely to have a positive outcome than PUP laws. This past legislative session, Kaua‘i lawmakers introduced legislation (HB 1956/SB 2791) that focused on youth taking a mandatory tobacco education course versus being served a monetary fine or appearing in family court. This course would provide an opportunity for students to learn about the health hazards they could be exposing themselves to and positive choices. It is important that this course be offered with no charge to ensure that this alternative does not disproportionately impact marginalized communities. Ultimately, HB 1956 died as lawmakers worked to incorporate tobacco prevention into other e-cigarette regulation bills.

Currently, schools on Kauaʻi follow best practices, with most middle and high schools avoiding suspension as their first choice of disciplinary action and instead referring students caught with tobacco products to a school counselor coupled with basic tobacco education curriculum training and/or to Teen Care with counselors who follow a substance abuse treatment curriculum (students must be willing to seek treatment in order to be enrolled in this program).

However if a teen is cited by the Kauaʻi Police Department for tobacco possession, and they are a first time offender, they are referred into a Teen Court Program operated by Hale O‘pio Kaua‘i, Inc. that allows first time teen offenders to go through a court process, work with a diversion program coordinator and take multiple educational classes, including a tobacco education course provided by the Coalition for a Tobacco Free Hawai‘i or from a trained partner. This education process and program has been successful, as measured by the reduction in the number of repeat offenders.

What can we do? While schools on Kaua‘i and statewide are waiting for specific state action on the regulation of e-cigarettes, they are still able to act with compassion and guidance within the scope of DOE’s Chapter 19 rules to assist students who become addicted to these products. But for students who need an education course to guide them in making healthier choices, or for schools who don’t have assistance to implement a program, we are still waiting. You as our community can continue to email your lawmakers and let them know we should not continue to punish students by taking away instructional time or criminalizing for an underage mistake driven by the tobacco industry. Comprehensive policies regulating the industry and funding for tobacco prevention and education are essential to curb Hawaii’s youth e-cigarette rates.

For more information on last session’s education bill, or about tobacco education programs your school can implement, please contact the Kaua‘i Community Coordinator at valerie@hiphi.org.