Health officials want to raise the legal age to buy cigarette products from 18 to 21, but Greene County’s health commissioner said a town-by-town approach will be harder than a unified statewide effort.
Melissa Howell, Greene County’s health commissioner, supports the Tobacco 21 program, which has gained momentum as flavored e-cigarettes and vapes become more popular among teens.
This week, Gov. Mike DeWine called the trend of teens vaping “a public health crisis” as he voiced support for Tobacco 21.
In DeWine’s native Greene County, officials are using a $100,000 federal grant to educate the public about the dangers of tobacco use and are urging local governing councils to pass Tobacco 21 ordinances.
“This is really about the age at which most people who become life-long smokers started smoking. It’s about reducing risks and saving lives,” Howell said.
The Centers for Disease Control reports that 95 percent of smokers started before age 21.
CDC statistics show a dramatic increase in smoking among teenagers: In 2011, when e-cigarettes hit the market, 280,000 middle and high school students were smokers. That number had increased to 3.6 million in 2018.
“The substance is really irrelevant. Whether it’s a cigarette or a JUUL, it’s still creating a habit and a pathway to your brain that says I want to do this,” Howell said. “The addiction to nicotine is as strong as your body saying ‘I’m hungry,’ or your body saying ‘I have to breathe’ because the nicotine just takes over. It takes your will really, you’re powerless against it.”
For Rhonda Kumbusky, manager at the Import House in Yellow Springs, if an 18-year-old is considered an adult, they should be able to decide whether they want to smoke or not.
“An 18-year-old can go into a Walmart and buy a firearm, or they can be sent by our government to fight in a war, they can elect our leaders, but they aren’t trusted to make decisions about purchasing a tobacco product? I think that’s ridiculous,” Kumbusky said.
About 22 percent of adult Ohioans smoke, which is higher than the national level of 17.5 percent, according to a 2017 study by truthinitiative.org. The study showed about 15 percent of teens in Ohio are smokers, compared to about 11 percent nationwide.
Raising the legal buying age was debated last year in Yellow Springs. After tobacco-related businesses spoke out against the idea, the village council unanimously rejected the proposal.
Council President Brian Housh said he thinks Tobacco 21 can be an effective initiative, but only if it’s applied in a broader area than just one community.
“Our business owners highlighted that while they support the idea of Tobacco 21, that if it’s just going to be in the village of Yellow Springs, we have stores that are so close to our borders, it wouldn’t be effective,” Housh said. “There was actually a lot of community support, but I think as with alcohol when the age was increased to 21, there are a lot of these retail-based kinds of arguments.”
More than 30 communities across Ohio have already passed Tobacco 21 ordinances, including Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati, and 12 states have raised the legal tobacco-buying age to 21.
Howell said DeWine’s support means it should be easier to get new local ordinances passed.
“When you try to do it jurisdiction by jurisdiction, I think you get more uproar from the community,” she said.
Kirsten Bean, Greene County’s health education program manager, said they have been successful in getting smoking bans approved in public parks and at Wilberforce and Wright State universities, as well as Clark State Community College in Beavercreek.
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Bean said anti-smoking posters have been distributed to high schools across the county, and they are working with school leaders to update policies to include vaping products. She said the Tobacco 21 initiative has proven effective in states that have passed laws.
“It’s about de-normalizing tobacco use among youth so that it’s not so easy for them to get. We do it with alcohol, so why not tobacco?” Bean said.