Ohio has a smoking problem. Fifteen percent of the state’s high school students smoke. That compares to 8 percent nationally. As a result, Ohioans in greater numbers move into adulthood with a smoking habit — and all that comes with it, in the form of cardiovascular and respiratory diseases that increase health care costs and prematurely end lives. Thus, Ohioans have an interest in taking steps to deter young people from starting to smoke.
That doesn’t require the state alone taking action. Communities across Ohio can help in making a difference. Which explains why the Tobacco 21 campaign now is pressing its case before the Summit County Council. The campaign, with Summit County Public Health in the lead, wants the council to approve legislation prohibiting businesses from selling tobacco products and electronic smoking devices to anyone under age 21.
The measure would cover nine townships. Six cities in the county, including Akron, Green and Norton, already have taken such steps. So have other Ohio communities, from the smaller Kent and Worthington to the larger Cleveland and Cincinnati. Nationwide, seven states have acted, along with more than 400 localities.
They have moved forward in view of the overwhelming evidence of the benefits, reflected, for instance, in a 2015 study by the highly respected Institute of Medicine, concluding that raising the tobacco sale age to 21 delivers a substantial positive impact on public health. Research shows that the step reduces the number of adolescents who start smoking, lowers smoking-related deaths and improves the health of teens, young adults and young mothers who are deterred from smoking.
Ninety percent of smokers begin before they are 21, and they typically start daily use between ages 18 and 21. Thus, the value in moving the age of sale to 21 goes to disrupting the social connection, or sharing, 18-year-olds less likely to have friends 21 and older.
The local support for making the change is both informed and impressive, including the major hospitals, school districts, townships, the American Heart Association, the American Cancer Society and Nicotine Anonymous. School officials point to a marked increase in the use of electronic smoking devices among high school students. “Vaping” can be a tool for quitting smoking. It also can work the other way, opening the door to an addiction. It is no secret that tobacco companies see 18 to 21-year-olds as a target group for marketing and sales.
One high school principal shared a collection of confiscated e-cigarettes with County Council members. The devices smelled like bubblegum.
This should be an easy call. Yet the effort recently failed before the Stow City Council, as it did in Hudson and Barberton. The County Council now appears closely divided. One concern has been the approach of putting the onus on businesses and applying a one-time $150 fee to support compliance. Actually, the fee is modest, advocates noting that some communities have applied an annual levy. The enforcement hardly rates as overbearing. It mostly involves education and awareness.
Part of the awareness goes to the role of smoking in the alarmingly high rate of infant mortality here and for the state as a whole, especially among black women. One of the healthiest steps a pregnant woman can take is to quit smoking. The Ohio Commission on Infant Mortality has recommended, as one piece of an overall strategy, raising to 21 the legal smoking age. It follows then that local communities are smart to make their contribution to discouraging young people from picking up the habit. In this case, that means barring the sale of tobacco products and electronic smoking devices to those under 21.