At the urging of a doctor who works to prevent nicotine addiction, Franklin County Public Health officials are moving forward with plans to help enforce local Tobacco 21 ordinances that prohibit sales to people younger than 21.
Dr. Rob Crane, president and founder of the Preventing Tobacco Addiction Foundation, said agreements and ordinances must be established to allow the health department to perform compliance checks at establishments that sell tobacco products in the five affected communities: Bexley, Dublin, Grandview Heights, New Albany and Upper Arlington.
Such policies would create tobacco retail licensing fees to help pay for the cost of the checks, Crane said. Currently, only Dublin has an established licensing fee, of $150 per year.
Franklin County Health Commissioner Joe Mazzola said the health department hopes to begin conducting compliance checks at 25 percent of tobacco retailers in each community every year beginning in 2019.
He expects that the licensing fees will cover a portion of compliance-check costs, with additional funds coming from the health department’s budget.
“What we’ve learned is that we need to ensure that these operators are aware and in compliance with the local ordinances,” Mazzola said. “We do not want tobacco in the hands of our youth, and so we need to ensure that those who are selling tobacco products do so appropriately.”
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Upper Arlington became the first city in Ohio to enact a Tobacco 21 law in 2015. City Council President Kip Greenhill, a former high school principal, said an impetus was the number of youths who were obtaining addictive nicotine products from friends who were ages 18 to 21.
Anecdotally, he has heard that some retailers are ignoring the law.
“All of us were hoping that businesses would be respectful of the law and not selling to young people because of the health implications, but there’s going to need to be some enforcement,” Greenhill said.
Upper Arlington city council does not have any proposals on its agenda looking at licensing fees for retailers. But if it came to that, Greenhill said he would support it.
“I spent 43 years involved in high school education, so it’s something I’m very passionate about,” he said. “We’re doing this for the health and safety of our young people, our kids.”
Dublin Law Director Jennifer Readler said the city’s licensing fees go to Franklin County Public Health, which conducts annual inspections. There has been discussion about random compliance checks, she said.
“This effort was intended to improve the safety and health of everyone who lives and works in and visits Dublin,” she said of the city’s passage of a Tobacco 21 law last year.
Katherine Ungar, executive director of the Preventing Tobacco Addiction Foundation, said other communities have been passing ordinances to allow public health agencies to enforce Tobacco 21 laws. Among them are Euclid and Cleveland Heights, which both gave enforcement authority to Cuyahoga County health officials, she said.
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Crane said Tobacco 21 laws change not just the legal age for purchasing, but also rewrite penalty procedures. In cities where it is legal to buy at age 18, underage sales can lead to misdemeanor criminal penalties against the clerk selling and the young person buying the product.
Tobacco 21 laws instead hold retailers responsible, he said. In Columbus, for example, a retailer receives a warning on a first offense, a $500 fine on a second offense and a weeklong loss of their tobacco retail license on a third offense.
“If someone was violating in the past, the only people who were at risk were the $7.50-an-hour clerk and the kid buying. That’s the way the law was structured,” Crane said. “Now, the retailer is at risk. That changes the entire dynamic. … And all of a sudden they’re paying attention.”
He said convenience stores have implemented stronger training programs and started sending their own secret shoppers.
Crane, who also practices and teaches family medicine at Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center, had approached the Franklin County Public Health board in June and August, asking for compliance checks. During his August visit, he presented results of a “sting operation,” in which a 19-year-old woman was able to buy tobacco products in eight of 13 retailers visited in the five Tobacco 21 communities.
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Crane expressed some disappointment that the health agency had committed to checking only 25 percent of retailers each year.
“Nonetheless,” he said, “there is some progress.”