STOW — Despite an overwhelming show of community support, Stow City Council on Thursday night rejected an ordinance that would have raised the age to buy cigarettes and other tobacco products in the city from 18 to 21.
The ordinance, an initiative from Summit County Public Health, would have banned 18- to 20-year-olds from buying cigarettes, tobacco products, alternative nicotine products and other tobacco product paraphernalia, including e-cigarettes and vape pens.
The council voted 5-1 against the ordinance, which wouldn’t have prevented 18- to 20-year-olds from using tobacco products in Stow or punished them for tobacco use. Summit County Public Health would have enforced it through business inspections, undercover purchases and civil fines for businesses found in violation.
Over nearly an hour Thursday, about 20 people who spoke encouraged council members to pass the ordinance. Speakers included officials and students from Stow-Munroe Falls High School; a member of the local chapter of Nicotine Anonymous; a Kent State professor; officials from the American Heart Association, the Preventing Tobacco Addiction Foundation and Summit County Public Health; and the health commissioner for the neighboring city of Kent, which passed similar legislation last year.
They shared stories of loved ones lost from smoking complications, students using vaping devices in high school bathrooms and 18-year-old students providing vaping devices or other tobacco products to younger students. Many of the students wore Tobacco 21 shirts. No one spoke in opposition to the ordinance.
But it wasn’t enough to sway the council to pass the ordinance.
Ward 3 Councilman Brian Lowdermilk said he didn't agree with businesses being the only ones held accountable in the legislation, with users not being penalized. He called it a "noble cause" but "misguided."
Lowdermilk also said the issue appeared to be one contained only to the schools and encouraged stronger enforcement and disciplinary actions from both the school board and administration.
"The discussion turned quickly from an overall city health issue to we have a problem in our schools," said Lowdermilk, who commended the several students who spoke for sharing their thoughts.
Ward 2 Councilwoman Sindi Harrison said the issue should be addressed at the state or federal level rather than in individual communities.
“This is a much bigger than Stow problem, and we need a much bigger way to deal with it,” said Harrison, who added she’s “not for smoking.”
At-large Councilman Mike Rasor said he’d consider a law narrowly tailored to address students using vaping devices at the high school that contain THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, the component in marijuana that gets users high.
“I’m proud for city council using its logic tonight, in the face of a passionate crowd, but moving forward I’d like to see us dig in our heels and fix the THC vaping in our schools,” he said.
At-large Councilman Brian D’Antonio declined to comment. Ward 4 Councilman Bob Adaska was absent from Thursday’s meeting.
The lone yes vote came from at-large Councilman Jim Costello. He said he knew there wasn't much chance of it passing, but he thought it could make a difference, even a small one, in the community.
“Do I think it would stop people from smoking? No. Do I think it would help make it a little more difficult? Yes,” he said. “You have to start somewhere."
Stow Mayor John Pribonic, who supported the measure along with Stow's police and law departments, said he was "shocked" and "taken aback" that the measure was rejected.
Stow-Munroe Falls High School Principal Jeffrey Hartmann said he was disappointed in the council’s vote and disagreed with the idea that it was only a school problem.
“I don't know if suspending or expelling kids more is going to address this issue, so the notion that this needs to be strictly a school issue I think is missing the point: that this is a reflection of a community problem,” said Hartmann, who said children ages 14 to 18 spend most of their time in school, so that’s where any issues would show up.
“I was hoping to partner with people to protect our kids,” he added.
Cory Kendrick, Summit County Public Health director of population health, said he hoped the idea could be reconsidered in the future.
Tobacco 21 regional director Wendy Hyde with the Preventing Tobacco Addiction Foundation, who’s advocated for similar legislation in Ohio and across the country, said she was “absolutely disappointed.”
“I’ve never seen such community support come out for this initiative, and it's disappointing that council could not see past their own implicit bias and not vote for this lifesaving initiative and value youth in their community,” she said.
Juul Labs, which produces e-cigarettes popular with teens and young adults, on Friday released a statement in support of the Tobacco 21 ordinance.
“We are committed to preventing youth access of JUUL products, and no young person or non-nicotine user should ever try JUUL. We cannot fulfill our mission to provide the world’s one billion adult smokers with a true alternative to combustible cigarettes if youth use continues unabated," Ted Kwong with Juul Labs media relations and communications said in an email. "Tobacco 21 laws have been shown to dramatically reduce youth smoking rates, which is why we strongly support raising the minimum purchase age for all tobacco products, including vaping products like JUUL, to 21 in Ohio. Our secure website, JUUL.com, already requires all purchasers to be 21 and over. We look forward to working with policymakers at the federal, state and local levels to achieve Tobacco 21."
Summit County Council is considering a similar ordinance that would raise the tobacco-buying age from 18 to 21 in nine Summit County townships: Bath, Boston, Copley, Coventry, Northfield Center, Richfield, Sagamore Hills, Springfield and Twinsburg.
Six municipalities in Summit County — Akron, Green, Twinsburg city, Mogadore, Norton and Richfield village — have approved similar measures. Stow joins Hudson and Barberton in rejecting the measure.
Emily Mills can be reached at 330-996-3334, email@example.com and @EmilyMills818.