As a measure to improve Ohio’s public health, Governor Mike DeWine’s two-year budget include’s a proposal to raise the state’s legal smoking age.
The governor has proposed legislation banning the sale of tobacco and vaping products to people under the age of 21. His spokesperson, Dan Tierney, said DeWine’s proposal is driven by his desire to improve public health outcomes.
Raising the legal smoking age from 18 to 21 could deter some people from starting, and could decrease smoking related health care costs, a significant portion of Medicare services, Tierney said. DeWine is also targeting the health care outcomes of expectant mothers.
“If a mother is smoking while she’s pregnant…that can create adverse health outcomes for the child,” Tierney said.
Statistics from the Ohio Department of Health show that more than one in five Ohioans smoke, the majority of them starting the habit between the ages of 18-21. ODH data also shows that more than 20,800 Ohioans died from smoking-related causes in 2016, more people than had succumbed to opioid use.
The ODH said the number of smokers in Ohio is steady at 22.5 percent, one of the highest national rates. In fact, Ohio is included among 12 contiguous states known as Tobacco Nation for their significant tobacco use over the rest of the nation. Those states include Michigan, West Virginia, and Tennessee.
The ODH data doesn’t include e-cigarettes, which have become popular among school-aged children. The battery-powered vaping devices heat nicotine-infused liquid to a vapor that is inhaled. Young smokers are drawn to various flavors available in the vapor.
Because Ohio is early in the two-year budget process, no timeline has been set for enacting a new smoker’s law. The budget would go into effect July 1, after legislative approval.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, smoking cigarettes causes over 480,000 deaths in American annually. Related illnesses cost the U.S. over $300 million each year.
Statistics from 2016 show that 13 percent of Fulton County adults smoked traditional cigarettes, and eight percent e-cigarettes and vape products.
Data on the county’s young people proved to be concerning. According to the Fulton County health assessment released in 2018, six percent of youth in grades 6-12 reported cigarette use in the past 30 days, while 17 percent said they used vape products in the same time period, the latter an increase from 11 percent two years earlier. Thirty-one percent of those using vaping products said they share products with peers, and 26 percent give money to someone 18 or older – which includes other high school students – to purchase products for them. Eleven percent said they managed to buy the products themselves.
Of county youth in grades 6-12, almost half believe vaping causes little or no harm, while only 24 percent recognize the health risks.
“Our young people are very aware of the dangers of smoking cigarettes but, unfortunately, do not believe the same risks are involved in vaping use,” said Beth Thomas, director of Fulton County Health Department’s Healthy Choices Caring Communities (HC3). “They are unaware of the high levels of nicotine and the risk of putting chemicals into their bodies. This low perception of harm leads to increased use.”
According to the American Lung Association, chemicals present in e-cigarette liquids can potentially cause “popcorn lung,” or bronchiolitis obliterans. The chronic lung condition can damage small airways, resulting in coughing and shortness of breath.
Thomas said HC3 remains concerned about the percentage of young people receiving tobacco products. She said companies manufacturing vaping products appear to target the young by marketing the products in flavors that appeal to children.
“The flavors are very similar to candy. They’re very fun, use-friendly flavors,” she said.
And vape products come in small, sleek designs very appealing within youth culture, Thomas added.
Ohio District 81 Representative Jim Hoops (R-Napoleon) said determining a legal age for smokers is not the government’s responsibility.
“Somebody who is old enough to go to war, to drive a vehicle, also realizes and understands what he or she does as far as the health of that individual. At this time, I probably would not support that issue,” he said.
Ohio District 1 Senator Rob McColley (R-Napoleon) agrees. “I oppose raising the age to buy tobacco products to 21. If you can vote and serve in our military, I don’t see any reason why you can’t purchase tobacco products,” he said.
The Fulton County Health Department hasn’t taken an official position on DeWine’s “Tobacco 21” proposal. But Thomas thinks it would decrease access to the young, since the legal-age peers who likely provide the products to them will lose their right to purchase them.
Reach David J. Coehrs at 419-335-2010.