Ohio's New "Tobacco 21" Law: A Step in the Right Direction

The following is a message from Erika Trapl, PhD, Co-Leader of the Cancer Population, Control & Population Research Program at the Case Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Beginning October 17, 2019, selling any tobacco or vapor product to anyone under the age of 21 will become illegal in the state of Ohio. Legislation adopting what is commonly known as "Tobacco 21" was signed into state law by Governor Mike DeWine on July 18 as part of the 2020-2021 biennial operating budget. The City of Cleveland was the first major city in Ohio to adopt Tobacco 21 in December 2015. Prior to the state's passage of Tobacco 21, seven additional municipalities in Cuyahoga County had adopted legislation to increase the legal tobacco purchase age to 21.

Tobacco 21 policy has been proposed as one policy approach to reduce youth tobacco use. While cigarette use has been declining, use of non-cigarette products, such as electronic cigarettes, has continued to attract youth. The premise behind Tobacco 21 policy is that by increasing the legal purchase age, the number of near-age peers who are legally able to purchase tobacco products is significantly reduced, ultimately reducing youth access to tobacco and nicotine products and subsequent nicotine dependence. Given the overwhelming proportion of current adult smokers who began smoking during adolescence, this policy has implications for longer-term adult smoking rates.

Passing legislation is just the first step; state agencies will now be tasked with implementing the new state law. As part of the budget bill, the role of the Tobacco Control Program at the Ohio Department of Health was expanded such that that agency can use funds to "administer compliance checks, retailer education, and programs related to legal age restrictions." This language recognizes that state agencies must have resources to build out strong implementation and enforcement actions to maximize the impact of the policy. Tobacco control advocates, including the American Cancer Society, had expressed concerns about the weak enforcement language included in this legislation and will likely be paying close attention to the retailer compliance and enforcement.

Importantly, the Ohio legislation does not include criminal penalties for youth who purchase, use, or possess these products, which follows model policy language advocated by the tobacco control community. The budget bill does include a new tax on vapor products at $0.10/ml and requires licensure of all retailers selling tobacco or vapor products.

Here in Cleveland, Tobacco 21 went into effect in April 2016. Local data collected by the Prevention Research Center for Healthy Neighborhoods (PRCHN) at Case Western Reserve University in 2015 and 2017 demonstrated a significant decline in the proportion of high school youth who were currently using cigarettes and cigar products following implementation of Tobacco 21. However, compliance checks conducted by the PRCHN indicate that just over half of sampled tobacco retailers sold cigarettes or cigarillos to individuals under 21. This is likely due to the limited resources invested in enforcement, and this is an area that the Cleveland Department of Public Health is currently working to address.

There is no silver bullet to preventing youth tobacco use, but the adoption of Tobacco 21 by the state of Ohio is a step in the right direction to curbing nicotine dependence and the myriad tobacco-related diseases experienced by Ohio residents.