Mike DeWine sees a public health crisis in the rising use of e-cigarettes or vapor products by young people. The governor has proposed raising to 21 the purchase age for tobacco products, including the electronic variety. He has done so in his two-year state budget plan. State lawmakers would do well to follow his lead. The governor isn’t overstating the problem.
Consider the findings of the recent Summit County Youth Risk Behavior Survey. While traditional cigarette smoking among high school students declined to 5.8 percent last year, e-cigarette use jumped to 25 percent. The federal Food and Drug Administration reports that nationwide in 2018, e-cigarette use among high school students increased 78 percent and among middle school students, 48 percent.
These are troubling numbers. Amy Acton, the director of the Ohio Department of Health, notes that the rise in e-cigarette activity has halted what had been a downward trend in overall cigarette use among young people.
The harmful health effects of smoking are well-known, the addiction accounting for more than 30 percent of all cancer deaths in the country. For young people, there is the added concern about the effects of nicotine on their developing brains. Experts point out that vaping devices pack a heavier amount of nicotine, prolonged use with the potential to affect memory and cognition in young people. More, the use of such products can make a person more prone to addictions later in life, say, to alcohol or drugs.
So the argument for action is strong. Which explains the effort locally by Summit County Public Health to persuade communities to raise the purchase age to 21. The Tobacco 21 campaign has succeeded in Akron, Green, Mogadore, Norton, Richfield Village, Tallmadge and Twinsburg. The County Council extended the threshold to nine townships. Across the country, 15 states have passed such measures, along with many cities and towns.
What researchers know is that younger teens often rely on friends ages 18 and 19 as sources for cigarettes. At the same time, they are less likely to have such a connection with someone 21 and older. In that way, the higher purchase age works as a deterrent.
Setting a higher purchase age won’t deliver on its own. As Donna Skoda, the Summit County health commissioner, emphasizes, an effective enforcement mechanism is required. It doesn’t need to be heavy-handed. The focus, as it has been locally, belongs on vendors, making sure they understand the harm and that there will be such things as spot-checks to test compliance, plus a penalty for falling short. The state could implement enforcement through local public health offices.
Ideally, setting the purchase age at 21 would be part of a larger effort to curb the use of cigarettes and elevate public health. That would involve higher taxes on tobacco products, including electronic versions. It means extending smoke-free laws to additional public spaces. It requires an adequate investment in prevention and cessation programs. Ohio once appeared poised to make advances on these fronts. Then, the state slipped backward, today its adult smoking rate at 21.1 percent, above the national average.
It may be that e-cigarettes or vapor products make a positive contribution as a transition in helping some people quit the habit. They appear less harmful than traditional smoking. Yet that hardly erases the risk, especially for young people, still in their developing years, especially when it comes to their judgment. Smoking long has been a public health problem. The sharp rise in vaping among young people makes for a crisis. If raising the purchase age to 21 isn’t the entire answer, it would be helpful and thus belongs in state law.