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Cleveland City Council proposes ban on sales of flavored tobacco products

Northeast Ohio Black Health Coalition works to ban menthol cigarettes.jpg
Tobacco companies have historically placed larger amounts of advertising for menthol products in Black communities, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The City of Cleveland has proposed restricting the sale of flavored tobacco products, following a similar move by the City of Columbus, which recently passed a similar ban.

If the ban is enacted, it would mean the approximately 400 convenience stores and tobacco shops in Cleveland wouldn’t be allowed to offer items such as menthol cigarettes, flavored cigars and flavored vapes.

Tobacco is the leading cause of preventable death in the U.S., according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Cleveland has the highest smoking rate in the nation at 35%, compared to the national average of 12%, according to the city’s Public Health Director Dr. David Margolius. Tobacco use is a big reason why Clevelanders' lives are on average 10 to 20 years shorter than those of their suburban neighbors, he said.

“The rest of the country’s smoking average has gone down, but for us, it's gone up,” he said. “As a community that cares about the health of our residents, we have to do something.”

Flavors added to tobacco enhance nicotine’s addictive effects and the tobacco industry has admitted to aggressive marketing of flavored tobacco products targeting young people and Black and LGBTQ communities, according to reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Black Americans smoke less than white Americans, but they are more likely to die from smoking-related diseases, according to the CDC. More than seven out of 10 Black children who smoke use menthol cigarettes, the CDC said.

The FDA last April proposed a national ban on menthol flavoring in tobacco products, but so far, the federal government hasn’t imposed restrictions.

“If [Cleveland] were able to prohibit the sale of menthol cigarettes, we would eliminate the disparity by 2025 between Black and white people dying from lung cancer,” Margolius said.

Five states including Massachusetts, California, New Jersey, New York and Rhode Island, and the entire country of Canada have moved to block retailers from selling flavored tobacco.

“A policy like this passed in other jurisdictions has led to a 20 to 25% reduction in smoking,” Margolius said. “If we were to get Cleveland smoking rate from where it is … to the national average, which we will do everything that we can to do, we'll save thousands of lives. Life expectancy — within just five years — in Cleveland would increase ten years.”

Studies show banning the sale of flavored vapes, which appeal to children, reduces the percentage of children who smoke. Margolius said that’s because of the ubiquity of tobacco marketing.

“What other jurisdictions that have done this have shown is that some people will continue to drive to places where they can buy flavored cigarettes,” he said. “But a lot of people will quit because, in fact, most people do want to quit smoking. It's just really hard to do when it's always in your face.”

If Cleveland's measure is passed, people won’t be penalized for possessing menthols or other flavored products, explained Margolius. The proposal seeks to restrict businesses in city limits from selling them.

Some business owners in the city have pushed back against the proposal because it will hurt their sales, said Margolius. But he points to large chains like CVS that have already halted sales, with customers’ health in mind.

Taylor Wizner is a health reporter with Ideastream Public Media.