CUYAHOGA FALLS — About 10 people addressed Cuyahoga Falls City Council on Monday to speak for and against an ordinance that would prevent anyone under 21 years old from buying cigarettes and other tobacco products in the city.
Council’s Public Affairs Committee on Monday night unanimously approved moving it to the full council next week. Council is expected to vote on the measure at 6:30 p.m. Monday.
The ordinance, an initiative from Summit County Public Health, would prevent anyone under 21 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. It wouldn’t prevent or punish 18- to 20-year-olds for using tobacco products in Cuyahoga Falls. Currently, it's legal for people 18 years old and over to buy the products.
In Summit County, County Council is considering a similar ordinance for nine townships. Six municipalities — Akron, Green, Twinsburg city, Mogadore, Norton and Richfield village — have approved similar “Tobacco 21” measures. Stow, Hudson and Barberton have rejected it.
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 18 to 20 smoke.
Cory Kendrick, director of population health with the county public health office, said preliminary data show 1 in 5 high-schoolers nationwide and 1 in 4 in Summit County currently use vape products. And he said those who vape are seven times more likely to try traditional tobacco products.
Kendrick, who spoke at the Falls meeting, said the ordinance would push the products outside the social circle of younger students, as they're less likely to know someone over 21 than someone over 18.
"This is about our middle-schoolers and high-schoolers never starting because we know once you start, it's so hard to quit,” he said.
Ward 8 Councilman Russ Iona said he's concerned about restricting rights for adults, who can legally smoke, vote, be in the military and own property.
“But suddenly we're saying we do not want you to be able to buy vape products,” he said. “This is being very specific."
Council President and Ward 4 representative Mary Nichols-Rhodes and at-large representatives Tim Gorbach and Jeff Iula said they’re in favor of the ordinance.
“We hope that it's enough of an inconvenience that they don't start,” Gorbach said of concerns about people going to other cities to buy their products instead.
Summa Health gastroenterologist William Shaheen said although vaping devices can help people quit smoking, they're still "highly, highly addictive" and are causing "an epidemic in schools."
"It is a fantastic alternative for people who are trying to quit,” he said. “The problem is what are we doing with the underage users.”
All eight members of the Mayor's Youth Advisory Council, who attend either Cuyahoga Falls or Woodridge high schools, said they thought the Tobacco 21 ordinance would be a good idea.
Members Matthew Hammonds and Ash Shahi, both juniors at the Falls, said they want to see e-cigarette use decrease in schools, especially in bathrooms.
“The prevalence of vaping in high school is really outrageous now, and it is still growing,” Hammonds said.
Others who spoke during the meeting also noted older students will sell vaping devices to younger students.
Cuyahoga Falls Police Department school resource officer Ed Dennis said in an email that 48 Falls high school students were found this school year with vapes in their possession, along with 17 vapes found at Woodridge High School.
Ward 6 representative Adam Miller said 48 students out of the entire student body, “[is] not an epidemic." About 1,500 students attend the school.
Businesses would be fined
Businesses that sell tobacco products would be required to get a one-time $150 certificate of compliance if the ordinance passes. A first violation for businesses that sell tobacco products to people under 21 years old would not result in fines. Second violations would incur a $500 civil fine, and each subsequent violation would result in a $1,000 civil fine. The fines would go toward efforts to prevent youth under 21 from smoking or to promote smoking cessation.
The Summit County Combined General Health District would enforce the ordinance and issue the fines, with inspections and undercover purchases.
Brian Lamtman, who’s owned Headz Up in Cuyahoga Falls for five years, estimated 10 percent of his customers are 18- to 20-year-olds, a number that’s increased since Kent, Akron and Cleveland approved similar Tobacco 21 measures. He said the shop only started selling vaping devices four to five months ago because of demand.
“It's obviously gonna hurt us,” he said. “I also think they're looking at it the wrong way, too. I think if it were just talking about cigarettes, probably wouldn't be such a bad way, but no 18-year-old kid smokes cigarettes anymore. Everybody vapes.”
Vape shop Groove just opened its Cuyahoga Falls location on Portage Trail two weeks ago. Its sister location in Kent can’t sell tobacco products to anyone under 21, as Kent adopted a similar ordinance last year.
Owner Jason Noble told council that since Kent enacted its ordinance in October, the shop’s sales are down $10,000 a month, which is why he opened a second shop in Cuyahoga Falls.
"I own a small company. I am not big tobacco,” said Noble, who said he stopped smoking eight years ago with the assistance of e-cigarettes after smoking for 18 years. “I am coming as the owner of a small company to say that this legislation directly affects us.”
A JUUL Labs spokesperson said the company supports raising the purchasing age.
“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," the spokesperson 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."
Beacon Journal reporter Emily Mills can be reached at 330-996-3334, firstname.lastname@example.org and @EmilyMills818.