Public health advocates want to bump the legal age for buying tobacco to 21 and they’re starting with city councils across Ohio — not state lawmakers — to make the case.
Dr. Rob Crane, an Ohio State University associate professor of family medicine and president of the Preventing Tobacco Addiction Foundation, is meeting with local officials in the Columbus area and elsewhere to convince them to adopt ordinances prohibiting tobacco sales to anyone under 21. So far, 58 cities in seven states across the country — including New York City — have taken such steps but none in Ohio, according to Crane.
Crane notes that a decade ago he lobbied cities such as Toledo and Columbus to adopt indoor smoking bans, which cracked the door open for a voter-initiated statute that banned indoor smoking statewide.
Crane said raising the tobacco age would reduce smoking among adolescents, similar to how alcohol use among teens dropped after states raised the drinking age to 21.
“Nearly all adult smokers began smoking by the age of 18 — almost no one starts smoking after 21,” according to a study Crane and OSU College of Public Health released earlier this month.
Ohio has a higher rate of smokers than the national average. In Ohio, 23.4 percent of adults smoke regularly, compared with 19 percent of American adults, and 15.1 percent of high school students smoke, compared with 15.7 percent of American high school students, according to 2013 figures from the Center for Disease Control.
In Needham, Mass., which implemented a tobacco 21 law in 2005, youth smoking rates dropped because the ordinance effectively blocked social sources that had been providing tobacco to Needham high school students, Crane reported.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Institute of Medicine released a report Thursday that said raising the tobacco purchase age to 21 across the nation would reduce smoking prevalence by 13 percent, result in 249,000 fewer smoking-related deaths down the road and lead to 286,000 fewer pre-term births and 438,000 fewer low-weight births.
Raising cigarette taxes
Ohio Gov. John Kasich is not interested in pushing the tobacco purchase age to 21, according to Kasich press secretary Rob Nichols. But the governor is pushing tax changes in his state budget bill that experts say will help reduce youth smoking rates.
Kasich is calling for the first cigarette tax hike in a decade, bumping it to $2.25 per pack, up from $1.25, starting July 1. Additionally, he wants to increase taxes on other tobacco products such as chewing tobacco to 60 percent of the wholesale price, up from the current 17 percent on most products and the current 37 percent on little cigars.
And Kasich wants e-cigarettes, or vaping products, taxed at the same rate as regular tobacco cigarettes beginning Jan. 1, 2016. A “cigarette equivalent” would be calculated for products that contain nicotine in any concentration and taxed at 11.25 cents per cigarette equivalent, according to Kasich’s budget bill.
Impact on vaping, e-cigarettes
The idea of taxing vaping products such as tobacco isn’t going over well in shops that sell the liquid nicotine and electronic cigarettes.
“I don’t agree that that’s any equivalent to a cigarette. I mean the health risks in cigarettes compared to vaping? You can’t compare those. It’s so much better to vape. That’s my personal opinion, other people don’t agree with that,” said Justin Woleslagle, of Dayton, a tattoo artist and vape user.
Chris Voudris, co-owner VaporHaus, added: “I do not think the tax is fair because honestly when there is 4,000 additives in a cigarette and it has been proven to kill you, how can you tax an e-cigarette the same way, when it has not been proven to have the same effects.”
VaporHaus has three stores in the area in Dayton, Kettering and Fairfield.
The increased tobacco, cigarette and vaping taxes are projected to generate an additional $991 million over two years for the state budget, according to the Legislative Service Commission analysis. The budget proposal is being debated in the Ohio House Finance Committee.
Vaping, which uses battery-powered devices with heating elements to produce a vapor for users to inhale, is gaining popularity with youths. Liquid nicotine used in the devices comes in hundreds of flavors that appeal to children, such as bubble gum, Captain Crunch and chocolate.
A University of Michigan study found last year that more teens use e-cigarettes than traditional tobacco cigarettes or any other tobacco product. The annual study has tracked substance use trends among students in eighth, tenth and twelfth grades for the past 40 years. The study found teens don’t believe e-cigarettes harm health.
Patrick Fleenor, an economist for Altria, which is one of the largest tobacco companies in the world, testified against Kasich’s tax proposals, saying Ohio would be relying on an unpredictable revenue stream, it could lead to smuggling and cross-border purchasing, and it would force smokers to pay more than their fair share of taxes.
Fleenor also argued against Ohio instituting a new tax on vaping.
“Taxing e-vapor products is misguided. First, e-vapor products may present a compelling harm reduction opportunity compared to combustible cigarettes and tax policy should not dissuade adult consumers from migrating to an alternative product,” he said in written testimony before the Ohio House. States should wait for the FDA to regulate e-cigarettes before jumping in with new taxes, he argued.
The American Vaping Association criticized Kasich’s vape tax, saying it would jack the retail prices up by 150 percent. And as far as raising the tobacco and vaping purchase age to 21 goes, AVA president Greg Conley said: “ If young men and women can go off and fight in foreign wars (at age 18), they should be free to purchase low-risk, smoke-free nicotine products.”
Dr. Crane said there is no long-term evidence that vaping will be safer than regular cigarettes.
“Remember Big Tobacco said that filters on cigarettes would make them safer - wrong. Then they claimed low-tar cigarettes were safer - worse than wrong. Now shady importers reap huge profits bringing unregulated vape liquid from China, and want us to believe it’s safe. Really? Adults can be gullible if they want, but please, keep this addictive junk well away from our kids.”
Torrance Smith of Fairborn spends about $150 a month on cigarettes — a habit he says he picked up at age 14 or 15.
Smith said raising the tobacco purchase age is a better idea that increasing taxes on tobacco and vaping.
“I’d deal with that because I started when I was young. I don’t think young people really should smoke like that,” Smith said. “I see a lot of kids in my neighborhood that be smoking and I be looking like ‘Man, you all too young for that … you all ruin you all life at a young age.’ I wish I never started when I was young honestly because I probably wouldn’t be smoking right now.”