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Health department proposes raising tobacco age to 21

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Toledo could become the ninth Ohio city to raise the minimum tobacco purchase age from 18 to 21. 

Proponents made their case to a city council committee on Thursday for the “T-21 initiative” in a meeting of the neighborhoods, community development and health committee. Their proposal calls for raising the purchase age for all tobacco products, including smokeless tobacco and e-cigarettes.

“Most lifetime tobacco users are going to start smoking in adolescence,” said Nicole McKenzie, who teaches respiratory care at the University of Toledo. “Research is showing that if tobacco use has not been started by 21, they are likely to never be smokers. ... Teen smoking is not powered by illegal sales so much as the legal sales to people who are 18 years old and passing them on to their friends.”

Councilman Tyrone Riley asked why 21 was “a magic number.”

One reason was to align with the state’s drinking age to make screening easy for proprietors who sell tobacco and alcohol, said Wendy Hyde, Ohio and Michigan regional director for the Preventing Tobacco Addiction Foundation.

Councilman Sandy Spang asked whether, like alcohol, illegal procurement would be just as easy. 

Tavis Glassman, a UT associate professor of drug awareness and health behavior, said the first goal is to limit accessibility, which will help “move the needle down.”

Adult smoking rates continue to decline in Lucas County, dropping from 24 percent in 2011 to 14 percent in 2017, according to county health assessments. Smoking rates for ninth through 12th grade students also dropped, from 18 percent in 2011 to 5 percent in 2017.

If the legal age to purchase tobacco is increased to 21, Toledo would join eight other Ohio cities that have done so, including Cleveland and Columbus. California, New Jersey, Oregon, Hawaii, and Maine also have similar laws, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. 

Proponents presented a list of Toledo-area officials who support the measure, including top officials at ProMedica, Mercy Health, and the University of Toledo Medical Center, as well as Toledo Public Schools Superintendent Romules Durant, and Health Commissioner Eric Zgodzinski.

Councilman Kurt Young said as a parent and a former smoker, he supports the bill.

“With the time frame you are talking about, that’s exactly when I began smoking, so I know what this is all about,” he said. Mr. Young, who did not win in November to keep his seat, lamented not being around to vote for the proposal. 

Councilman Yvonne Harper said this was just the first discussion about the issue and will schedule at least one more public meeting before it goes to a vote. Dates for future meetings have not been scheduled. 

Contact Lauren Lindstrom at llindstrom@theblade.com, 419-724-6154, or on Twitter @lelindstrom.

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