VOICES: Menthol and flavored nicotine products have devastating effects on vulnerable communities

Our elected state legislators did the unthinkable. On December 14, 2023, Ohio GOP lawmakers decided to add a provision to a bill to prevent any community in Ohio from regulating vaping, smoking, and other nicotine product use and sales. The City of Columbus had just passed a menthol and flavor ban. There were community meetings to hear testimony from both sides. I was asked to testify at several of those meetings. One was so contentious, that when leaving, several Columbus policemen asked to escort me to my car.

Columbus passed the ban but legislators were working with tobacco lobbyists on a bill. This bill would not only undo Columbus’s ban on menthol and flavored products but unravel any policy like tobacco-free schools or TRL’s around the state. Gov. DeWine vetoed the bill. As Gov. DeWine vetoed the bill, he said,” When a local community wants to decide to ban these flavors to protect their children, we should applaud those decisions”.

The final version of the FY ‘23-25 budget passed. Lawmakers, once again, snuck a provision to outlaw communities from regulating nicotine products. On July 4,’23, DeWine vetoed the tobacco regulation ban provision. Dec. 13, Ohio Legislators overrode the Governor’s veto.

Why did state legislators do this?

I think I know. Ohio’s total state tobacco revenue was $1.2 billion dollars last year. Ohio spent $14.8 million state-wide on adult cessation and youth prevention efforts. How much did the tobacco industry spend in Ohio to market that will ultimately kill 50% of its users? They spent $429.8 million. Well over $1 million a day.

The evidence is clear. Over 81% of youth who use tobacco products begin by using a flavored product. In Ohio, over 20% of high school students use e-cigarettes. Many of our youth who vape, vape daily and are addicted to these products because of their high level of nicotine in vape products with a high “puff count”.

On a recent visit to a local vape shop in Dayton, I found a disposable vape that had 25,000 puffs. That is the equivalent of 125 packs of cigarettes. I know of one of our local elementary schools that has had to deal with a 1st grader who has brought an e-cigarette to school twice. There have been multiple elementary students caught with these products. Middle and high school administrators struggle to address this epidemic. Moreover, this is a social justice issue. There are up to 10 times as many tobacco advertisements in West Dayton and Trotwood stores than in Centerville and Kettering. Black Americans, youth, and the LGBTQ+ community are bombarded with menthol cigarette ads.

So what should Dayton and Montgomery County do about this? The first step is to help our community truly understand the devastation of menthol and flavored nicotine products and the impact it has on vulnerable communities. Sinclair College is generously hosting the first-ever, “Regional Menthol Prevention Summit’. The Summit will be from 8:30 a.m. to 12 p.m. with breakfast being provided by The CareSource Foundation. Three of our nation’s leading authorities on menthol products will speak. The Summit is free to the public. Local and state elected officials must participate as well as the faith community. Those interested in attending can go to Montgomery County ADAMHS to register.

The reality is there are 259,000 children in Ohio today who will die prematurely from the use of nicotine products. The Mayor of Cleveland put it well: “It’s killing Black Clevelanders at an alarming rate, and we want to do more”.

Dayton and Montgomery County, do we want to do more? Join us on May 16 to show you care for our children. There is no other single action the Administration can take that would do more to advance health equity.

Bruce Barcelo MS, CTTS, NCTTP Director of Education and Prevention, Soter Technologies, and faculty at The Breathing Association.

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