Washington County proposal would raise tobacco age to 21

MARIETTA — The Washington County Health Department is looking for input on a proposal to increase the legal purchase age of tobacco from 18 to 21 in local communities.

“What we’re looking at behind this is tobacco use rates in Washington County,” said Washington County Health Commissioner Dick Wittberg. “We believe the best way to improve health in Washington County as evidence suggests is to raise the age and reduce initiation of use.”

He said a later start into tobacco addiction gives individuals a chance of kicking the habit and a better chance at combating the negative health effects.

Kelsey Hall, 19, of Marietta, said while she doesn’t smoke, she has several friends in school at Marietta College that started to smoke before they turned 18.

“I know a lot of people that started in high school as a freshman or sophomore,” she said.

“I know some of them have tried to lower their use in a day but they can’t.”

But she said her peers are more likely to vape, or use a vaporizer, than smoke cigarettes.

Vape Advantage owner Corey Tunnell, who has locations in Belpre, Parkersburg and Marietta, said he is not in support of raising the age for sales of tobacco.

“I’ve been in this industry since it began in this area,” said Tunnell. “We get a lot of working-age middle class here … In my personal opinion I set out to help people quit smoking like vaping did for me. I’ve seen people use it as a step-down tool to no nicotine at all. All this is going to do is drive business across the river and lose those (local) tax dollars.”

Wittberg said the goal of the initiative is not to target those who already use tobacco products, but to prevent younger generations from starting.

“Your brain is still developing in that window of 18-21 to and is more susceptible to addiction than if you were to try smoking later in life,” he said.

Abby Mahoney, 20, of Marietta, said when she was in middle school, she thought the legal age to buy tobacco was 16.

“The kids on the bus were all doing it, they were smoking or using snuff on the bus,” she said. “They’d say their parents bought it for them.”

Mahoney vapes, but says she does it for the fun flavors and the variety of options to build a vaporizer with different coils and other mechanisms.

“I don’t think (the government) should be able to take it away from me because I’m only 20,” she said. “Plus it’s mostly older people in their 30s and up that come into the shop and want to add nicotine, they want the burn like from when they smoked cigarettes. I don’t like the taste of nicotine in mine.”

Mahoney works for Tunnell in his Marietta store.

“I see more businessmen and bankers and people around my own age (32) in our stores,” said Tunnell. “I’m not trying to target kids. But if an 18-year-old is old enough to fight and die for their country then they’re old enough to make their own decisions. Are they an adult or not?”

Wittberg said in other cities where this initiative has passed through city governments, tobacco sales weren’t significantly affected.

“Sales go down in retail by less than 2 percent because the majority of tobacco users aren’t in that age group,” he explained. “It’s just putting up another barrier. Even the military is supportive of this and wants to move toward a tobacco-free force.”

Tunnell said if the proposal were to progress though, he’d consider moving his businesses.

“I moved my businesses to Ohio because I’ve always felt the state is more attractive to business,” he said. “But if it would affect my businesses then I would probably move out of the county line… If this was enacted it would put my shopkeeper out of a job.”

But no legislation is yet set in stone, or on paper for that matter.

The initiative locally begins with a survey available online, with two questions:

¯ Do you favor or oppose raising the legal minimum age to purchase all tobacco products from 18 to 21?

¯ What is your connection to Washington County, Ohio?

Respondents can rate their support or lack thereof and select whether they live and/or work in the county and then can provide contact information for future developments on the initiative.

That survey can be found at washingtongov.org/21reasons.

Hard copy responses can be mailed to McPeek at 342 Muskingum Drive, Marietta, OH 45750.