As youth vaping rates surged, a powerful state lawmaker repeatedly held up anti-vaping laws while accepting nearly $20,000 in campaign contributions from tobacco companies and lobbyists.
Sylvia Luke, who represents the Honolulu neighborhoods of Makiki, Nuuanu, and Punchbowl in the state House of Representatives, was identified to HPR by multiple independent sources as a primary reason that legislation aimed at curbing the underage use of electronic cigarettes and vape devices has failed in recent years.
Analysis of legislative records show a clear trend: for years Luke opposed efforts to restrict illegal sales, ban flavors, and impose penalties on unlawful sellers, instead favoring punitive measures for underage users of e-cigarettes.
At the same time she was using her position in charge of the powerful House Finance Committee to defeat vaping bills, Luke received thousands in campaign contributions from tobacco lobbyists.
Even though it’s been clear for years that Hawaii’s kids have a health-threatening vaping problem, restrictions on the highly addictive devices remain minimal.
Forty-eight percent of high school-age kids in the islands have tried electronic vapor products like e-cigarettes and vapes, according to latest Youth Risk Behavior Survey compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Bryan Mih, an Oahu pediatrician and medical director for the Kapiolani Medical Center Smoke Free Families program, says that high schoolers in Hawaii vape at rates twice the national average, while the middle school average is three times as much.
That represents a worsening statewide trend that has been in place for several years.
Forty-two percent of high schoolers and 27% of middle schoolers reported trying vaping at least once in the 2017 survey. Rates were even higher on the neighbor islands.
Vaping products contain the same addictive chemical found in cigarettes: nicotine. Mih says that minors are especially vulnerable to nicotine addiction, which can have lifelong health implications.
“These are habits that are established early on,” Mih said in an interview. “Once they’re hooked on nicotine, it’s hard to kick it.”
Flavored products are a major factor in kids becoming hooked on vaping. According to the American Heart Association, 80 percent of youth vapers report their first e-cigarette product was flavored.
California recently approved a ban on the sale of flavored tobacco products that is scheduled to take effect in January. The tobacco industry has mobilized an effort to overturn the legislation before it can take effect.
In Hawaii, vapes and e-cigarettes are less regulated than traditional tobacco products like cigarettes. They are not subject to the state’s tobacco tax, nor are there restrictions on internet sales, other than age.
Those loopholes are squarely in the sights of anti-vaping activists like Liza Ryan-Gill, who manages the Flavors Hook Kids Hawaii campaign.
“Right now we have very little regulation on electronic smoking devices,” Ryan-Gill told HPR.
Like traditional tobacco products, the sale of e-cigarettes in Hawaii is illegal to anyone under the age of 21. However, data from the Hawaii Public Health Institute’s 808 No Vape project indicates that 94% of online purchases attempted by underage teens are successful.
For several years, state lawmakers have proposed more stringent restrictions on marketing and online sales, as well as tax increases and flavored product bans. They have uniformly failed.
Ryan-Gill says Big Tobacco has fought hard to keep Hawaii from regulating its new generation of addictive products.
“They are spending lots of money to make sure these bills don’t get passed,” she noted.
That effort appears to have been successful.
Analysis by HPR found that over the past five years, 82 bills proposing to restrict e-cigarettes were heard at the state Legislature, covering taxation, internet sales, flavor bans, and penalties for illicit sales.
Only three became law: one raising the age to purchase tobacco products from 18 to 21, and two banning smoking on the campuses of the University of Hawaii system and the Hawaii Health Systems Corp. respectively.
Tobacco giant Altria, which in 2018 bought a 35 percent stake in vaping manufacturer Juul, has been one of the most active tobacco contributors seeking to influence e-cigarette and vape regulations in Hawaii.
Altria made around $90,000 in direct campaign donations to Hawaii political candidates in the 2020 election cycle, according to campaign spending reports.
A January report from Honolulu Civil Beat Beat found that the company spent more than $400,000 dollars on lobbying efforts over three years.
One lawmaker in particular appears responsible for defeating more than a dozen efforts to prevent underage vaping in recent years.
Luke, as chair of the powerful House money committee, must approve any legislation pertaining to taxation of government expenditures.
Since 2015, 14 bills that would have restricted vaping have died in the Finance Committee. They include four proposed bans on flavored products and two that sought to impose penalties for retailers selling to minors.
Only 1 of the 14 received an actual up or down vote. The rest simply were deferred or not scheduled for a hearing, decisions that are made by the committee chair.
Analysis of mandatory financial disclosures conducted by HPR found that between 2014 and 2020, the Luke campaign received 29 separate donations totaling $19,800 from tobacco companies and their local lobbyists.
Direct contributions from tobacco companies represented a minority of the donations, with Altria contributing on five separate occasions and Reynold American contributing twice.
Hawaii-based lobbyists for tobacco companies were responsible for the lion’s share of donations.
Employees of Capitol Consultants Hawaii, who are registered agents for both Reynolds American and Altria, made $10,000 dollars in donations to the Friends of Sylvia Luke campaign over a four-year period.
SanHI Government Strategies, the lobbying arm of local law firm Ashford & Wriston, sent Luke $1,000 directly. Multiple attorneys employed at the firm, who are also registered agents for Altria, contributed another $1,300. A lobbyist for Juul donated $500 in 2019.
The campaign contributions peaked in 2019, when Luke received at least $9,000 tied to Big Tobacco spread across 13 separate donations.
In that same year, Luke’s committee killed six bills attempting to reduce the sale of vaping devices to minors. The committee approved a single vaping-related measure that would have allowed teachers to confiscate e-cigarettes found in the possession of underage students and imposed fines on violators.
That measure was later veoted by Gov. David Ige.
Over the period examined by HPR, Luke’s committee did approve five other vaping-related measures, including one in 2020 that would have banned flavored products, while also penalizing underage users. Only one of the measures, the one raising the tobacco age from 18 to 21, ultimately became law.
The 2020 bill on flavored products ultimately failed to gain final approval when lawmakers were forced to shift their focus to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Rep. Luke declined multiple requests for interviews for this story. In 2019 she spoke to KHON News about vaping and indicated her preference for addressing the state’s underage vaping problem by punishing illegal users.
“We’re hoping that stronger, tougher penalties and confiscation is really the approach we need to take because we need to send a strong message,” Luke said in a television interview outside the State Capitol.
Advocates say that is the wrong approach. It takes the average adult seven attempts to quit tobacco, according to Liza Ryan-Gill. She told HPR that punishing addicted users is not an effective strategy.
“For our kids to quit, they need to feel that they can come forward and say, ‘This thing has got me and I can’t get free from it,’” Ryan-Gill said.
The pandemic derailed many legislative efforts in the 2020 session, including youth vaping. However, those lawmakers who oppose vaping say they will continue the fight in 2021.
Maui Sen. Rosalyn Baker has been a major proponent of vaping legislation in recent years and thinks there is still strong support for addressing the problem.
“I’m certain that those of us who helped work on the legislation last year are still willing to do that again,” Baker said.
On the issue of Big Tobacco influencing lawmakers, Baker says a well-organized lobbying effort does cause legislators to look more closely at an issue, but she remains optimistic that her side will prevail.
“Big Tobacco has always played a role in items that come out of the Legislature, but I think we have truth and science on our side that they cannot muster,” Baker noted.
Even with science on their side, the effort will likely be complicated by the ongoing economic crisis. In past recessions, lawmakers have been reluctance to impose restrictions on business.