TALLMADGE — The city could join other Northeast Ohio communities in efforts to reduce tobacco use among young people by raising the minimum age for tobacco purchases from 18 to 21.

Council gave the proposal, which would impose civil penalties on tobacco vendors, a first reading on March 14.

“Tobacco is still the leading cause of preventable, premature death in the United States,” said Cory Kendrick, population health director for Summit County Public Health. He said tobacco kills more people combined than car crashes, suicides and overdoses.

Noting most long-term tobacco use begins in adolescence, Kendrick said the legislation, which is being promoted through an initiative by the health agency, would make it illegal for businesses to sell tobacco products like cigarettes and vaping pens to anyone under 21.

“We know that by raising the age we can prevent many of them (youths) from ever starting (using tobacco-related products),” he said.

While the popularity of traditional cigarettes has diminished, Kendrick said, e-cigarettes use continues to rise. Citing the results of a survey conducted in Summit County schools, he said 37 percent of youths report they can obtain tobacco or tobacco-related products from retail stores and another 25 percent say they can get them from a friend or someone in their social circle.

“One in five high school students now vapes regularly,” Kendrick told council members, adding statistics on a national level reveal almost one in two youths have tried a vaping or e-cigarette product. “The CDC (Centers for Disease Control), the FDA (Food and Drug Administration), and major research organizations have said ... the best way to stop this teen vaping epidemic (is) to control access.”

Some vaping devices look like flash drives, others like pens. One of the most popular is the Juul, which is marketed as a tool to help adults stop smoking; however, Kendrick said the flavor of the pods Juul offers makes the device attractive to youngsters. The proposed Tobacco 21 legislation would be a step in the right direction, he said.

In addition to preventing 18- to 21-year-olds from buying cigarettes, Kendrick suggested the move would have positive trickle-down effects in terms of students’ social circles. High school and middle school youngsters may have more readily access to 18-year-olds to buy them cigarettes and vaping products, Kendrick said, than to those who are 21 or older.

The initiative would prohibit retailers of tobacco, electronic cigarettes and nicotine products from selling them to anyone under the age of 21. In addition, such retailers would be required to post signage declaring the new legal purchase age. There would be an education period for retailers about the age increase and they would be required to pay a $150 one-time licensing fee.

Under what’s proposed, retailers who sell tobacco, e-cigarettes, vaping products or tobacco paraphernalia to minors would face a warning for a first offense, a $500 fine for a second offense, and a $1,000 fine for a third offense. About 10 businesses in Tallmadge would be affected if City Council were to adopt this proposal, said Rita Weinberg, the city planning director/economic developer.

If a penalty for business owners is being considered, there should also be a corresponding penalty for the underage tobacco or e-cigarette user, council member Dennis Loughry said.

“For us ... to adopt something that doesn’t penalize the perpetrator, I just think is totally wrong,” Loughry said.

He also told his colleagues he doesn’t think the consequence for breaking the law, as proposed, is severe enough or that the permit fee is high enough. Councilman Craig Sisak said he’d like more specific information about tobacco usage in Tallmadge schools before making a decision on the legislation, such as whether local youth are getting such products from retailers.

Kendrick said almost 400 other communities across the United States, 20 municipalities in Ohio and six communities in Summit County have chosen to ban such sales already. Norton, Twinsburg, Richfield, Akron, Green and Mogadore have adopted the Tobacco 21 legislation, while Stow and Barberton have rejected the proposal. Hudson declined to consider the legislation at this time.

 

Reporter Ellin Walsh can be reached at 330-541-9419, ewalsh@recordpub.com or @EllinWalsh_RPC.