MUNROE FALLS — Even though a state law took effect in October 2019 that raised the legal age to purchase tobacco and vaping products to 21, the city is looking to pass Summit County Public Health’s Tobacco 21 legislation.

Cory Kendrick, policy and legislative affairs manager for Summit County Public Health (SCPH), explained the proposal to city council on Tuesday at a committee meeting.

Kendrick said his agency’s legislation to change the legal age to 21 to buy tobacco and vaping products must be passed for the city to give the Summit County Combined General Health District the authority to issue fines to retailers who sell products to those under 21.

"We do not have the authority to fine but municipalities can give us the authority," Kendrick said. "It’s an important health issue. Kids vaping is an epidemic. The legislation is being used to stop kids from vaping."

Although the state law made it illegal to sell tobacco and vaping products to people under 21, the city still needs a way to enforce it, said Mayor James Armstrong.

"Kids start smoking when an 18-year-old friend provides the tobacco products," Armstrong said. "This takes that 18-year-old away."

If the legislation before Munroe Falls Council does not pass, SCPH cannot provide civil fine enforcement services, Kendrick said. Currently, the Ohio Department of Public Safety does limited enforcement throughout the state. Local police can also choose to provide enforcement, but there is no funding available to support them.

If council approves the Tobacco 21 legislation, a letter is sent out to the retailer for the first offense with the date and details of the illegal sale before a $500 fine for a second offense and a $1,000 fine for the third offense, Kendrick said. The retailer is given a civil fine but the employee and underage customer are not charged.

"We don’t want kids charged," Kendrick said. "Marketing dollars are manipulating kids to vape and we want a diversion to prevent kids from starting."

The legislation, nicknamed "Tobacco 21" is being promoted through an initiative by Summit County Public Health. 

The same legislation was approved in 2019 by Summit County Council, Akron, Kent, Twinsburg, Mogadore, Green, Richfield and Norton, but was rejected by Cuyahoga Falls, Hudson and Stow. Summit County Council’s approval covered Bath, Boston, Copley, Coventry, Northfield Center, Richfield, Sagamore Hills, Springfield and Twinsburg townships.

On its website, Summit County Public Health officials said the state law that took effect last fall "does not supersede our existing local Tobacco 21 ordinances." The enforcement of the local Tobacco 21 ordinance is still in effect for the cities that approved it last year.

The Summit County Public Health director sent letters in November to approximately 500 retailers who sell tobacco related products in the county stating that they must check IDs before selling to anyone who might be under the age of 21.

"We educate retailers to know the law is 21 for selling tobacco products," Kendrick said.

The legislation had a first reading at the council meeting on Feb. 4 and is slated for a second reading Feb. 18.

Council members offer thoughts

Council member Mike Barnes said he’s against smoking but noted that 18-year-olds can vote, drive and fight in a war.

"I feel this is a feel good piece of legislation," Barnes said. "Will it stop kids from smoking and vaping?"

Council member Allen Mavrides said young people can drive a car and enlist in the army under the age of 21, but those things aren’t addictive like alcohol, drugs and smoking.

"It’s the addiction that is a concern," Mavrides said.

Police Chief Jerry Hughes said vaping is more dangerous than smoking.

"Vaping isn’t a harmless water vapor," Kendrick said. "We’re seeing serious lung diseases. A user super heats an oil and inserts it into his lungs for a rapid rate of lung dysfunction. It’s a serious problem and not safe. It’s more addictive than cigarettes."

Smoking cigarettes has fallen away in the last 20 years and vaping is taking its place, Kendrick said. The same people who owned the tobacco companies, own the vaping companies. Vaping didn’t catch on until the tobacco companies lost money and bought vaping companies, he added.

"They used the same play book [as selling tobacco] but there were no restrictions on vaping like tobacco," Kendrick said. "Now it’s a teen epidemic."

Council member Chris Ritzinger said he believes companies knew vaping wasn’t safe and sold it anyway.

"One hit is equal to a pack of cigarettes," Ritzinger said. "They’re going to get addicted to it. They knew it and put cute [flavored] vapors out there. Cigarette companies are making back the money they lost in fines for selling cigarettes."

Kendrick said more education is needed in the schools about the dangers of vaping and the goal is to keep eighth graders from starting.

"We’re concerned about retailers selling to kids," Kendrick said. "The most effective method is to change the age to 21. There are 500 retailers in Summit County that could be fined if they sell a product to someone under 21. Retailers already have a method for identifying someone 21 and older for the sale of alcohol and can do the same for tobacco products."

Gannett reporter Laura Freeman can be reached at 330-541-9434 or lfreeman@recordpub.com.