MOUNT VERNON — Three county health educators gave a presentation Wednesday to the Knox County Board of Health, presenting facts on youth smoking and tobacco use.
The presentation provides a basis for the health board to consider — in the near future — passage of a Tobacco 21 resolution advocating for the ban of all tobacco products in the county for those under the age of 21. The resolution, if it were to be adopted, would then be forwarded to area municipalities, including the city of Mount Vernon, for possible action.
Health educators Tami Ruhl, Ashley Phillips, and Mike Whitaker, from the health department’s Division of Planning, Education, and Promotion, repeatedly emphasized during their PowerPoint discussion that the earlier tobacco use can be stopped among youths, the less chance there is that they will be addicted to tobacco habits later in life.
One statistic they cited was that nearly 14 percent of high school student nationally, and 4 percent of middle school students, self-report that they are smokers. Those percentages are consistent with Knox County figures, they said. And every day, 2,500 youths under the age of 18 — with 12 being a common age of first use — use tobacco products for the first time. Of that figure, 400 become dependent (daily users).
Statistics also show, however, that by increasing the age of smoking and all tobacco use to 21, “We can stop approximately 90 percent of new smokers from ever starting,” they noted. They added that increasing tobacco use to 21 also goes hand-in-hand as a national trend with an earlier national policy, during the late 1980s, that changed the legal age for alcohol purchases from 18 to 21.
Though smoking rates have decreased nationally among adults and high schools students the past 20 years, Ruhl noted tobacco companies have responded by creating newer, trendier ways — e-cigarettes, vaping, hookah, heated tobacco products and a particularly fast-growing type of vaping popular with the youngest teens and middle school students, called Juuls.
Knox County Health Commissioner Julie Miller said she is personally in favor of Tobacco 21 legislation because of its ability to curb tobacco use among young people. However, she said there are enforcement issues that would need to be examined before the health board delivers a potential vote on a resolution. The county’s largest city, Mount Vernon, no longer has a city health department, which means it would fall on the county health department to conduct compliance checks among the private sector. Ultimately, it is the responsibility of business owners to enforce Tobacco 21 legislation should it pass, with proper ID checks, Miller added.
The health educators noted that six states thus far have implemented statewide Tobacco 21 programs, and 350 communities — with 11 more added in just the past two weeks. Ohio has 15 municipalities, many in large cities like Cleveland, which have enacted the legislation.
The county health board may hear more about Tobacco 21 issues again as early as next month as the three health educators conduct more research into the topic.