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Northeast Ohio cities seek tobacco bans as statewide action uncertain

Some Northeast Ohio cities are taking steps to increase tobacco regulations — including bans of flavored products, requiring retail licenses and capping the number of vape shops — to reduce use of these products. At the same time, state and federal governments are considering their own tobacco bans.

Advocates for the regulations say the ordinances are one step to help people quit smoking.

“What happens when you end the sale of flavored products is smoking rates decline,” David Margolius, director of the Cleveland Department of Public Health, told Ideastream Public Media.

New regulations in Kent

The Kent City Council passed an ordinance Aug. 16 limiting the number of vape and tobacco retailers in the city. Community members were concerned about how easily these products could be obtained with 27 retailers in the city, Joan Seidel, Kent's health commissioner, said.

“What we were hearing from community residents were their concerns and complaints that there's too many [stores],” Seidel said, adding there are more vape shops in the city than fast food restaurants. “Of course, the more availability there is, the easier it is for people to stop in and buy products.”

Current licensed retailers are grandfathered in and can continue to operate, but the new ordinance caps the number of retailers at 20. So, when a shop closes in the future, another shop will not be able to open in its place if the limit has already been reached.

Jae Lerer, manager of Puff n’ Stuff, a vape and tobacco store in Kent, said he supports the move to limit the number of retailers.

“Anyone who's lived in Kent has watched the amount of smoke shops and vape shops pop up everywhere in every available strip mall space,” he said. “There were just so many of them that it comes to a point where there's no way you're splitting the existing market between all these different locations. That's just not sustainable.”

The Kent ordinance also prohibits vape or tobacco retailers from locating within 1,000 feet of a “youth-oriented facility” such as a school or childcare center, which Lerer agrees with as well.

"I think it's smart," he said. "There's a lot of parental worry and community worry about underage people picking up tobacco. Some places don't card, and everyone knows where those places are after a couple of months."

Proposed regulations in Cleveland

Meanwhile, in Cleveland, health officials want to ban flavored tobacco products such as menthol and require licenses for tobacco retailers. However, their proposed ordinance has been stalled by city council since its introduction in February.

The campaign for the legislation involves a number of groups in the Cleveland area, including faith groups and the Northeast Ohio Black Health Coalition. A flavor ban would be a step toward health equity, the director of the Coalition, Yvonka Hall, said.

“When we talk about racism as a public health crisis, this is a driver of that crisis that these communities have been targeted,” she said.

She pointed to data from a recent Stanford University study showing that 90% of African American teenage smokers use mentholated products.

Tobacco companies use advertising, concert promotions and other means to target Black communities and sell cigarette smoking as a lifestyle, she said.

 Man vaping
Cuyahoga County would not be able to ask voters to tax vaping if the budget proposal is approved.

“They invested in rap concerts, R&B concerts, gospel concerts, jazz concerts, The Newport News, the Kool Jazz Fest, giving out cigarettes within our communities,” she said, “using those things to target our community and disguising it as this feel-good-look-good thing that is cool to do.”

Skepticism about ban

However, some business owners and local officials are skeptical of the proposed bans.

They argue the bans represent an inconsistent approach, with different standards for cities versus suburbs and different requirements for flavored tobacco versus other flavored products, such as alcohol.

Cleveland City Council President Blaine Griffin said Cleveland is being singled out and asked to meet a different standard than other cities.

"Last I looked, Cleveland is not the only city that has poor people of color," Griffin told Ideastream Public Media. "So, if this is an issue about targeting poor people of color, then we should make it about the county or the state and not just the city of Cleveland. Just putting a restriction in on the city of Cleveland is, to me, short-sighted."

Griffin also said the unequal impact on local businesses isn't fair.

"Sometimes if you have a business on the Cleveland side of the street and somebody could just go right across the street to Euclid, Lakewood, Shaker, Cleveland Heights, East Cleveland and buy whatever they want to," Griffin said. "Cleveland has all these restrictions. So I think if we are going to make that jump, everybody needs to make that jump at the same time."

Lerer, the Kent business owner, argued the standards for banning products are not consistent.

"They're not talking about alcohol that is sweet or candy flavored," he said.

Critics of these proposals also argue local health agencies need to do a better job of enforcing the tobacco regulations that are already on the books and effectively acting on initiatives to address other health risks.

“I feel like they've been too lenient with a lot of places," Lerer said. "A lot of these places make so much money on underage sales that a small fine is just a drop in the bucket. We were told when they did the Kent tobacco ordinance that there would be enforcement and that these places would lose their tobacco license. That makes sense. Why hasn't that happened yet?”

Griffin said he and the other council members also want to ensure local health officials are effectively addressing the health concerns they already have before them. For example, he and others want to examine how the city health department is addressing lead paint problems, rodent infestation and food inspections.

Griffin added he needs to see more details about how the ban would be implemented. He also wants to pair any ban with strategies to drive down tobacco use, such as implementing a smoking cessation education campaign.

"We're going to look at this in a comprehensive way," Griffin said. "We don't want to just pass a law, get a headline, everybody pat each other on the backs and then we have unintended consequences or there's no implementation or no outcome."

Critics of the ban also argued a federal or statewide ban is a more effective approach.

"Instead of focusing on trying to play a game of whack-a-mole, let's come up with a better plan," Lerer said. "Kent wants to ban flavors. Okay. If that happens, people can go to Ravenna, they can go to Stow, they can go to Cuyahoga Falls. When it becomes a state law and a federal law, then it becomes a lot more easy to enforce."

Uncertain prospects for state law

On this front, advocates are hoping Ohio lawmakers follow cities' lead and institute a statewide prohibition on flavored products. That would be similar to what happened in 2019, when the state adopted a policy prohibiting anyone under 21 years of age from buying tobacco products after cities such as Kent and Cleveland first did so.

Cleveland health official Margolius said he hopes that enough local government action on tobacco regulations might inspire statewide action. In the meantime, local governments must push forward to implement local bans, he said.

“We can't wait for the federal government to save lives, and we can start saving lives immediately,” he said. “That’s why local governments have to act.”

So far at the state level, there's been a lot of political back-and-forth with little action. Last January, Gov. Mike DeWine vetoed a Republican-backed bill to prohibit local governments from enacting flavor bans. However, Republicans in the House overrode the veto Dec. 13. The issue now heads to the Senate, which is expected to vote on the veto override this month.

Lerer said he doesn't believe the state is acting in good faith.

"I feel like a lot of what's going on in the statehouse right now is just a dog and pony show," he said. "They're talking [out] both sides of their mouths."

However, regardless of the uncertainties and opposition, advocates are pledging to keep working to pass the bans.

“We're not giving up. We know this is too important," Margolius said. "We recognize that city council isn't all the way there yet, but that doesn't mean the effort is going to go away. As long as smoking is the leading cause of death in Cleveland, it's going to be our number one issue that we have to act on to save lives.”

Hall of the Northeast Ohio Black Health Coalition agreed.

"This legislation is going to help save so many lives that are needlessly lost to menthol and menthol products," she said.

Grace Springer is a journalism student at Kent State University. She is the General Assignment Editor for KentWired and covers executive administration for student media.
Stephen Langel is a health reporter with Ideastream Public Media's engaged journalism team.