STOW — Stow City Council is considering an ordinance that would raise the age to buy cigarettes and other tobacco products in the city from 18 to 21.
The ordinance wouldn’t prevent 18- to 20-year-olds from using tobacco products in Stow, and city and school district officials know it wouldn't stop young people from traveling outside the city to buy them. But they hope it puts a dent in the habit.
"It's a health issue that needs to be addressed,” said Stow Mayor John Pribonic. “Not any one thing that we do becomes a solution, so I think it's one of these types of things, this could be a small piece of the puzzle."
The ordinance, an initiative from Summit County Public Health, would ban 18- to 20-year-olds from buying cigarettes, tobacco products, alternative nicotine products and other tobacco product paraphernalia. That includes e-cigarettes and vape pens — including Juuls, which are popular with teens and young adults.
Stow-Munroe Falls High School Principal Jeffrey Hartmann said 18 students were disciplined for tobacco-related violations last school year. So far this school year, it's already at 38 students. Hartmann said he’s concerned that students don’t understand what they’re using when they vape and think it’s safer than smoking cigarettes.
“They think they're acting responsibly, because that's what's been told to them through the marketing,” said Hartmann, who added that the school has closed some restrooms because of students vaping in them.
Hartmann said although most of the students vaping at the high school are younger than 18, he hopes if the city prevents 18- to 20-year-olds from buying tobacco products, it’ll make it harder for high school students to get the products from others or want to try them.
"It'll move the needle,” he said. “This isn't going to solve everything, but it's one step.”
Stow Law Director Amber Zibritosky said the ordinance could help stop people from ever using tobacco, which according to Summit County Public Health is the leading cause of preventable premature death and is one of the leading causes of death in Summit County.
According to Summit County Public Health data, 95 percent of adult smokers begin smoking before they turn 21. And in Summit County, about 15 percent of people between 18 and 20 smoke.
"You're not just stopping it at high school,” Zibritosky said. “You're stopping a lifelong thing, potentially.”
Stow Police Chief Jeff Film said a common argument against raising the age to buy tobacco products is, "If our young men and women are old enough to go fight in a war, they should be able to smoke."
But Film said in Stow, there are only currently four military members between 18 and 20.
"It won't affect that big of a population," said Film, who added "the military has a huge push against tobacco use ... for our soldiers to be more fit for combat."
According to the website Tobacco21, from the Preventing Tobacco Addiction Foundation, 17 Ohio cities have passed 18-to-21 tobacco-buying ordinances, including Akron, Norton, Mogadore, Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati.
There are more than 20 businesses in Stow that would be required to get a one-time $150 certificate of compliance if the ordinance passes. First violations for businesses that sold tobacco products to 18- to 20-year-olds would not result in any fines. Second violations would incur a $500 fine, and each subsequent violation would result in a $1,000 fine.
The Stow Police Department wouldn’t enforce it; Summit County Public Health would, with inspections once a year and undercover purchases at least once every two years. The program, which Pribonic said is meant to educate businesses — not punish them with a "gotcha law" — wouldn’t cost the city anything.
Zibritosky said it was important the 18- to 20-year-olds using tobacco weren’t punished, something Film said he liked.
“Stemming supply but not criminalizing the buyers,” Zibritosky added.
Kishan Patel, who’s worked at Stow tobacco shop Smoker Friendly for about 10 years, said the store doesn’t see many 18- to 20-year-old customers. Given the store’s close proximity to Kent, where the tobacco-buying age has already been raised to 21, he’s surprised he doesn’t see more of those college-age shoppers.
"Maybe a customer a day,” he said. “Common sense tells me they would come here … They can still get their tobacco in Kent, probably, through maybe friends or otherwise.”
Tim Gearhart is the team leader at Kings of Vapor, just across the Stow line in Kent, which raised its tobacco-buying age last summer. He said since then, the store, which sells smoking alternatives, including nicotine delivery devices that use different flavors of e-juice and customizable nicotine levels, lost a key customer demographic: college students.
"Definitely business declined, because there's less people that are able to purchase here,” he said. “It's just making them leave the city to purchase what they need, and it's nothing more than lost tax revenue for the city.”
The ordinance received a first reading at Stow City Council’s Jan. 24 meeting. Council members have said the ordinance is expected to go to three readings before a vote. Council members have also said revisions to the ordinance are possible.
At-large councilman Mike Rasor said on his website “the best City Council can do” is push the minimum age to purchase vaping electronics to 19, which he said would help keep them out of the high school. Rasor noted 18 is considered the age at which teenagers become adults.
“I refuse to go down the slippery slope of eliminating freedoms for adults,” he wrote.
Rasor added he would consider supporting “a very narrow law to impact the supply of vaping devices in our schools.”
“Based on my vote counting, a broad prohibition is dead on arrival,” he wrote.
Beacon Journal reporter Emily Mills can be reached at 330-996-3334, email@example.com and @EmilyMills818.