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Ohio reverses local menthol tobacco bans, infuriating doctors

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On New Year’s Day, the city of Columbus, Ohio, did what the federal government has not been able to: ban the sale of menthol cigarettes.

Three weeks later, the state Legislature voted to reinstate menthol and other flavored tobacco products — and strip all its cities of their ability to regulate what type of tobacco is sold or enforce who is old enough to buy it.

Ohio is just the latest state to limit what local communities can do about tobacco use. At least 39 other states have passed similar laws, according to the American Lung Association.

The move has frustrated public health officials in Ohio who say residents are already at greater risk of dying early from smoking-related diseases. The state has one of the highest smoking rates among adults in the country: 17.1%, compared to the national rate of 11.5%, according to the American Cancer Society.

“I am very concerned when politicians start deciding what they think is best for the health of the population,” said Dr. Mysheika Roberts, health commissioner for Columbus Public Health. “We know that tobacco products are harmful.”

Leo Almeida, the Ohio government relations director for the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, said that smoking is responsible for an estimated 20,200 adult deaths in the state each year.

“There are currently 259,000 Ohio children who are alive today that will likely die prematurely from a smoking-related disease,” such as cancer or heart disease, he said.

Flavored tobacco products, in particular, have been the focus of public health organizations and anti-smoking groups for more than a decade. Experts blame the meteoric rise of teen vaping on candy- and fruit-flavored e-cigarettes. The federal government banned flavored e-cigarettes in 2020, but left menthol products on the market.

A federal ban on menthol, which was expected last year, has been delayed until at least March. A White House spokeswoman said Monday that the administration had no update on the matter.

The inaction prompted the city of Columbus and some of its suburbs to pass their own flavor bans, including menthol. Lawmakers in Cleveland had also begun the process of prohibiting flavored tobacco products.

That all went away Jan. 24 when the Ohio Senate voted to override its governor’s veto of this provision: “It is the intent of the general assembly to preempt political subdivisions from the regulation of tobacco products and alternative nicotine products.” In other words, cities, counties and townships in Ohio cannot take it upon themselves to enact or enforce any tobacco-control laws.

The action negated Columbus’s ban on flavored tobacco products and erased any chance that Cleveland would put forth such a law.

“This is beyond frustrating,” said Micah Berman, a public health and law expert with the Center for Tobacco Research at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center. “This is about the most obvious thing that we can do to prevent people from getting cancer.”

State tobacco regulation, such as the one that prohibits anyone under age 21 from buying cigarettes, will stand.

But local jurisdictions would be powerless to enforce them, Berman said. The provision is expected to take effect at the end of April.

Black smokers at risk

The issue is a priority for health officials in Cleveland, where 35% of adults smoke.

“Smoking is the No. 1 preventable cause of death and disease and disability in the city of Cleveland,” said Dr. David Margolius, Cleveland’s public health director.

Black communities are impacted the most, and use menthol products at far higher rates. Nearly 85% of Black smokers use menthols, compared to 30% of white smokers, according to the Food and Drug Administration. And Black men have the highest lung cancer death rate in the United States.

“We had hoped to take our destiny into our own hands by passing a local law that would help save lives. But now the state has prohibited us from doing that,” Margolius said. “We are really counting on the White House to step in.”

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