Cincinnati Could Raise the Legal Smoking Age to 21

Cincinnati City Council is likely to pass the higher age restriction this week. Supporters say it will keep young people from starting to smoke, but opponents say it will hurt local businesses and that teens will still find a way to get tobacco products

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

Cincinnati City Council will decide Wednesday whether to boost the age at which you can buy cigarettes within city limits from 18 to 21.

Council’s Budget and Finance Committee approved legislation raising the age limit today 6-1, meaning it will likely pass full council and become law.

The potential 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 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.

“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.”

But some council members had some doubts about the proposal, and those who sell so-called “e-cigarettes” and similar products protested being included in the change.

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.

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. “If we’re serious about this, why don’t we make tobacco illegal? And I’m very concerned about the cost.”

Mann asked city administration to prepare a report on anticipated costs to the city after the Interact for Health grant runs out.  He voted against the proposal.

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.

Six other council members voted for the law, but there was some trepidation.

“I’m torn,” councilmember Jeff Pastor said. “At the heart of this is the issue of choice. We make far more consequential choices with our food, for instance. At the heart of my political beliefs is the freedom of choice, even when I don’t like the choice you make. It bothers me that you can join the military or buy a house, but you can’t buy cigarettes.”

Pastor, however, eventually voted for the measure, citing the need to ensure better health outcomes in minority communities.

Councilmember Tamaya Dennard, who introduced the legislation, says she has no reservations about it.

“This is a no-brainer for us,” she said. “If someone wants to get ahold of cigarettes, they will get ahold of cigarettes. But this widens the gap and makes it harder for them to do so.”

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