Cincinnati Ups Smoking Age to 21

Supporters say the change will help keep youth from getting cigarettes, improving health outcomes in the city. But opponents say it violates the rights of those who are old enough to vote, serve in the military or take out loans

click to enlarge Cincinnati City Hall - Nick Swartsell
Nick Swartsell
Cincinnati City Hall

Cincinnati City Council today voted to boost the age at which you can buy cigarettes within city limits from 18 to 21. The new law making it illegal to sell tobacco products to those under the age of 21 will take effect in December 2019.

Council’s Budget and Finance Committee approved legislation raising the age limit 6-1 earlier this week, but today's final 5-3 vote didn't come without some debate.

Opponents say the law unnecessarily restricts adults who can serve in the military, take out loans or get married from smoking. But the law’s supporters say it will help slow down smoking rates among young people because it will create a bigger gap between high school students and those who are legally allowed to buy cigarettes. 

A 14-year-old and 18-year-old might both go to the same high school, for example, where the elder student could potentially sell legally purchased cigarettes to young students. But, supporters say, a 14-year-old and a 21-year-old are not nearly as likely to interact.

The hope is that by making tobacco harder to get at the age when most people start smoking, it will keep young people from starting the habit, especially in low-income communities where many tobacco ads are focused and where smoking rates can top 45 percent. That, in turn, could positively change rates of infant mortality, cancer, heart disease and other deadly diseases over time.

"A lot of times, when people self-medicate the issues that they're going through, they turn to cigarettes," Councilwoman Tamaya Dennard said about the impacts of tobacco on low-income people. Dennard introduced the proposal in council. She noted that the law doesn't criminalize youth attempting to buy cigarettes, but merely levies civil penalties against retailers who sell to people under 21.

Along with Dennard, councilmembers Greg Landsman, P.G. Sittenfeld, Christopher Smitherman and Wendell Young voted for the change. Councilmember Amy Murray was excused from today's meeting.

Councilmembers Jeff Pastor and Chris Seelbach voted against the law because they said it curtails the rights of adults to make decisions about smoking. Councilmember David Mann also voted against it, saying that the law would be costly to enforce and ineffective. 

"I'm probably more conflicted about this than anything else," Seelbach said. "I don't think government should be able to tell anyone what to do with their own body. How can I be pro-choice and against anti-sodomy laws and tell someone what to do with their own body?"

Seelbach indicated that, should Mayor John Cranley veto the law, he would vote to overturn the veto because a majority of council supports the measure.

"I don't take lightly that an 18-year-old can enter into contracts, or go to prison," Pastor said. "We're telling them they can do anything else, but they can't smoke."

Pastor voted to advance the law through committee earlier this week, but voted against it today.

The change comes after a push by the Tobacco 21 Coalition, which includes the American Heart Association, the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, the American Lung Association, the Cincinnati Health Department, Cradle Cincinnati, Hamilton County Public Health and other local and national groups.

"The American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network celebrates the action councilmembers took today," American Cancer Society's Cancer Action Network's  Andrea Britcher said today in a statement. “Tobacco 21 is the next step toward reducing the harm tobacco companies inflict on our communities when they target young people. With the new tobacco 21 ordinance, Cincinnati will help reduce tobacco use by high schoolers who often get these deadly products from their 18-year-old friends and become addicted before they have a chance to grow up."

Cincinnati is the 16th city in Ohio to pass a law requiring someone to be 21 to purchase cigarettes. Akron, Cleveland and Columbus have similar laws.

“The way I see it, my son is more likely to be in school with 18-year-olds where he’ll have more easy access to tobacco,” Evanston resident Jacqueline Presley, who supports the law, told council today. “We live in a community where we can see the ads, we can see the billboards. We need to stop some of these diseases early on so our children can live the best lives possible.”

Those who sell so-called “e-cigarettes” and similar products protested being included in the change earlier this week.

Jeff Kathman of the Ohio Vapor Trade Association claimed the law wouldn’t be effective, and might even prove counter-productive.

“We’re overwhelmingly opposed to any underage use of these products,” said Kathman, who also helps run a vape shop called Cincy Vapors. “However, we cannot support the inclusion of vapor products in Tobacco 21."

Kathman noted that minors often don’t access these products via stores, but online and other places where age verification can be minimal. Those under 21 could also venture to neighboring municipalities where they're still legally able to purchase tobacco products, he said.

"Youth will find a way to get these products that aren’t meant for them,” he said.

Smoking rates overall have been declining for years. But new e-cigarette technology has caught on with some youth. Cincinnati Public School Board Member Mike Moroski says that students are picking up smoking from the e-cigarettes because they’re unaware they have the same active ingredients found in traditional cigarettes.

“Ten times as many high school students smoke e-cigarettes as did 10 years ago,” he said. “Sixty percent of our kids in CPS think (e-cigarettes) just contain flavoring. They are smoking cigarettes and they are becoming addicted.”

Cincinnati Health Commissioner Melba Moore says that almost nine out of 10 smokers start by the time they’re 18, and that 80 percent carry the habit into adulthood.

“One half of smokers will die prematurely due to the effects of tobacco,” she told council today. “What we want to do is prevent the initiation into tobacco use and the continuation of use into an everyday occurrence.”

Several physicians from area hospitals also voiced their support for the measure in council's committee meeting.

The change in the law would cost about $200,000 a year in the form of increased enforcement of the new, higher age restrictions, according to city manager’s office.

The city wouldn’t need to kick in any money, at least at first. The Cincinnati Health Department will get a two-year grant from Interact for Health to run the program — $150,000 in the first year and $50,000 for a second year. The rest of the program’s operating expenses — which would pay for two full-time and one part-time position — would come from a $500 license fee paid by businesses that sell tobacco or e-cigarette products.

“We can absorb this cost with the permit fee and the grant we would receive,” Moore said.

But Councilman David Mann noted that the city might have to pick up the tab after the grant runs its course. He questioned whether the law would be effective.

“I don’t think this law will do anything,” Mann said in committee. “If we’re serious about this, why don’t we make tobacco illegal? And I’m very concerned about the cost.”

There is some evidence that raising the legal smoking age can cut into smoking rates.

A 2015 study by the federal Institute of Medicine found that raising the minimum legal age for smokers would likely increase health and reduce smoking rates among young people, and could have longer-term benefits as well.

"Overall, in the absence of transformative changes in the tobacco market, social norms and attitudes, or in the knowledge of patterns and causes of tobacco use, the committee is reasonably confident that raising the MLA will reduce tobacco use initiation, particularly among adolescents 15 to 17 years of age; improve the health of Americans across the lifespan; and save lives," the study concludes.