MOUNT VERNON — The time to for Knox County local governments to pass Tobacco 21 policies is now, while the statewide trend among municipalities to ban tobacco sales to those under age 21 continues to gather momentum, says Mike Whitaker, the Knox County Health Department’s director of tobacco cessation programs.
Some businesses that sell tobacco products, like Walmart and Rite Aid, are taking it upon themselves to adopt Tobacco 21 rules, Whitaker said. Their rules should be in place by July.
Whitaker and other members of the Health Department’s Division of Planning, Education, and Promotion continue to make presentations to villages and other entities about the importance of the Tobacco 21 proposal. While 14 percent of high school students smoke nationally, and 4 percent of middle school students, national statistics also show that increasing the age of tobacco use to 21 “can stop approximately 90 percent of new smokers from ever starting,” he said.
The health department, which offers free tobacco cessation programs, runs frequent surveys which ask youths to self-report their ages of smoking for the first time and use of other tobacco products. One client self-reported to the county that he had started smoking at age 7, which could have dire health consequences more so than when the age of smoking is much later, Whitaker said. And while overall rates of smoking have gone down, other forms of tobacco — vaping, hookah and small cigars — have increased dramatically, threatening to cancel out any gains made. That’s why Whitaker said all tobacco products need to be prohibited for those under 21.
The village of Fredericktown heard a health board presentation on Tobacco 21 at its most recent regular meeting on Monday, Councilmember Bill Van Nostrand said. There seems to be a clear consensus that Tobacco 21 policy needs to be passed.
“I think it goes back to health,” he said. “We want to be able to protect our residents the best we can. All of us have made some poor choices in life at one time or another. But this would be a great way to prevent young people from making a poor choice.”
According to the Tobacco 21 website, https://tobacco21.org, more than 30 Ohio municipalities, including Columbus and Cleveland, started passing Tobacco 21 policies in 2015. Columbus was the sixth state municipality to do so in 2016. More and more Ohio cities keep adopting Ohio 21 policies, with 31 having done so to date — more than 10 in just the last two months. Statewide Tobacco 21 policies exist in Maine, Massachusetts, Illinois, Vermont, Maryland, Virginia, Arkansas, Utah, Hawaii, Washington, Oregon and California.
If a municipality adopts Tobacco 21 policies, anyone ages 18 – 20 can still legally possess tobacco. They simply cannot buy it in a municipality that has adopted Tobacco 21.
Keys to success of Tobacco 21 policy, Whitaker said, also involves alternatives to tobacco use for those who wish to quit — like ongoing, free cessation classes — and enforcement. The enforcement in Knox County, as has been the case in Columbus, would most likely come from the health department, Whitaker said. The county would take the initiative to ensure that businesses are putting up the appropriate Tobacco 21 signage, and would check on store owners and managers to make sure they are checking the IDs of tobacco product purchasers. They would also have to check on the existence of vending machines to make sure they are not accessible. Conversations Whitaker said he has had with local Walmart and Rite Aid managers went well, with their informing him they plan to start implementing Tobacco 21 rules by July.
The manager of Cheap Tobacco in Mount Vernon, who did not wish to have her name identified, said Tobacco 21 policy would affect the store’s business with slightly fewer customers. She estimated about 15 percent of her tobacco customers are under age 21. “That’s why I’m not super concerned about it,” she said.
Asked what the most popular product at the store is for those under age 21, she said it’s definitely Juul. Juul is a popular form of vaping, or e-cigarette, among 18-to-20 year olds, with a two-pack at $9.99 and a four-pack at $15.99. Juul satisfies nicotine craving, comes in all sorts of flavors like popcorn, mango, and strawberry-mango — and it smells nice, she said. That differentiates it from other forms of tobacco products, like cigarettes.
The trouble with unsuspecting youths under 21, several county officials said, is they may not realize that products like Juul can be highly damaging to their long-term health, just as cigarettes are. Those who are just 18 may be oblivious to, or simply ignore the harmful effects of vaping over prolonged periods, they believe.
“I really think that 21 is probably the right age if you’re going to make that decision about (using) tobacco,” Knox County Commissioner Teresa Bemiller said. “I don’t think they should be marketing to young people. It’s good to try to prevent them from smoking if possible. I don’t think the vaping is any safer than cigarettes.”
Vaping involves a handheld electronic device that heats a liquid, which in turn generates a vapor inhaled by its user.
Knox County Health Commissioner Julie Miller was asked to answer the critique of some in regard to Tobacco 21, who say that since only two percent of all cigarette sales are to those under age 21, the effect of Tobacco 21 policy to curb tobacco use will be minimal.
“My response is, I think they need to do their research,” Miller offered. “The earlier we can get teens not to be exposed to tobacco, by not being able to purchase it for use, the better off we all are.”
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