COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – The City of Columbus’ plan to ban the sale of flavored tobacco products may be short-lived.
The Ohio General Assembly passed legislation Thursday morning prohibiting local governments from enacting their own restrictions on tobacco and alternative nicotine products, just days after Columbus City Council unanimously voted to bar flavored tobacco sales within city limits starting in 2024.
“Council is hopeful that Governor DeWine will stand up for kids by vetoing this legislation,” a council spokesperson said in a statement.
Folded into House Bill 513 on Tuesday, the amendment states that governance over smoking products “is a matter of general statewide concern that requires statewide regulation.” Rep. Jon Cross (R-Kenton), the primary sponsor of HB 513, said slashing municipalities’ say over tobacco products prevents the government from “once again” picking “winners and losers.”
“We wanna sit there and say, ‘Oh, don’t get fat, we’re gonna cancel double cheeseburgers! We’re gonna outlaw this; we’re gonna outlaw that,’” Cross said. “Do we want Columbus, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Kenton, Bellefontaine, Findlay saying, ‘Listen, just like the Mayor of New York did, we’re gonna get rid of the Big Gulp?’”
The state of Ohio generated more than $1.2 billion in tobacco-related revenue in 2021, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. One year later, the American Lung Association handed Ohio failing grades in three of five areas it assessed: tobacco prevention and cessation funding; tobacco taxes; and flavored tobacco products.
While Ohio spent $12.3 million for tobacco prevention in 2021, the state incurred a $5.6 billion loss in smoking-related healthcare costs and dished out $5.88 billion for smoking-caused losses in productivity, the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids found.
Rep. Beth Liston (D-Dublin), an internal medicine physician, rattled off a litany of smoking statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as she spoke against the amendment: A single vaping pod holds 20 cigarettes’ worth of nicotine; 3.5 million middle and high school students use e-cigarettes; and e-cigarettes reversed nearly two decades of progress in reducing teen nicotine addiction.
Limiting local governments from regulating tobacco products, Liston said, violates “home rule,” a doctrine within the Ohio Constitution that provides local governments some autonomy to make decisions within their own communities.
“Communities are taking steps to try to protect their kids from the harmful impact of this targeting marketing campaign and the epidemic of teen vaping,” Liston said. “I see no rational reason to prevent them from doing so.”
Tobacco use claims the lives of 45,000 Black Americans every year, making it the No. 1 cause of preventable death in the Black community, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. Rep. Dontavius Jarrells (D-Columbus) said “this is real life for me,” as his grandfather died from smoking-related cancer a few years ago.
By blocking municipalities from enacting regulations on tobacco products, Jarrells told lawmakers that the General Assembly conveys a message: “Black people, in each part of this great state, when they die, they do not matter,” he said.
“The prohibition of local regulation of tobacco products and alternative nicotine products means this body is okay with 259,000 Ohio kids who are alive today will die prematurely from smoking-related disease,” Jarrells said, citing data from the American Cancer Society.
Though Columbus’ flavored tobacco ban passed unanimously after more than 15 hours of public hearings, it was not immune to controversy. Several business owners, including Ben Salah, the owner of Epic Puff smoke shop on North High Street, said the ordinance could force him to permanently close his business.
“If we are adults, you cannot tell adults what to do and what not to do,” Saleh told council members before they approved the ban. “This is their lives.”
Cross urged lawmakers to protect small business owners like Saleh from municipal government overstep. When the coronavirus pandemic hit, he said it wasn’t lawmakers who “saved Ohio.” It was the taxpayers who opened their pocketbooks, he argued.
“They bought cars, they ate at restaurants, they bought things,” Cross said. “Sales tax saved the day, but we wanna sit here and say you can’t buy this and you can’t buy that and to hell with retail?”
The state legislative challenge to Columbus’ flavored tobacco ban – which will move to Gov. Mike DeWine’s desk for consideration – comes one day after Attorney General Dave Yost filed suit against the city’s move to regulate firearms.