Mt. Vernon, Ohio is a typical small midwestern town. It’s located about an hour northeast of Columbus, Ohio, and has 17,000 residents and a small college. The town is practically an American archetype: it was named after George Washington’s Virginia estate, and was once home to folk hero Johnny Appleseed.
But Mt. Vernon could soon become famous — or infamous — for something other than being a perfect example of Small Town, USA.
The Mt. Vernon City Council is considering an ordinance that would ban sales of e-cigarette products to those under 21 while allowing those same young adults to continue buying cigarettes. Yes, you heard that right — this is a Vapor 21 law. The ordinance also includes using any kind of vape pen or e-cig in all of the city’s public and indoor smoking restrictions.
Hundreds of cities (and six states) have adopted Tobacco 21 laws in recent years. The laws typically restrict the sales of cigarettes — and usually smokeless tobacco and vaping products too — to those 21 and older. But no other city has passed a law that encourages 18-year-olds to choose combustible tobacco over vaping.
No credible expert believes that vaping poses risks remotely close to smoking cigarettes. The tar and carbon monoxide that make cigarettes deadly are completely absent from vapor products. In fact, any harms caused by vaping remain hypothetical; they’re based on lab tests that may not translate to human physiology. There is simply no concrete evidence that vapers’ health is at risk.
But that’s not what Mt. Vernon health officials think. According to Knox County Health Commissioner Julie Miller, using nicotine can kill you — which simply isn’t true. She told the city council all about it Monday evening at the second reading of the Vapor 21 ordinance.
“There’s a lot more to vaping that we don’t know than we do know. The thing we do know is that nicotine kills people and it’s addictive. That’s what we know,” Miller told the council members, according to the Oneida Dispatch. “I would suggest that you work with the Health Department. I have experts in the field.”
One of those experts is certified tobacco treatment specialist Mike Whitaker. When Mayor Richard Mavis explained his intention to include vaping in the city’s smoking laws during an August council meeting, he cited Whitaker as a source of information. Whitaker is a Knox County Health Department employee.
“The electronic cigarettes, the vape pens, they have known carcinogens in it,” Whitaker told KnoxPages.com, a local news site. “Even the ones that they kind of advertise that there’s no nicotine in it, there are studies showing that there are levels of nicotine in the product. The tobacco companies own the vape pens and they have misled the public for so long. They’re not stopping with that.”
Whitaker says flavored e-liquid is clearly aimed at enticing teens to vape. “Who else would that be designed for?” Whitaker asked, according to KnoxPages. “It’s more for the youth. So it’s very much a concern. And studies are showing that as they become older, then they kind of switch to cigarettes, which kind of starts the whole cycle all over again.”
A recent survey of almost 70,000 adult vapers showed that fruit and dessert flavors are the most popular. And there is no evidence that vaping is a gateway to smoking. There is some evidence that the same teenagers likely to smoke are also likely to vape, and also that some of them are using e-cigarettes to quit smoking.
The news shocked James Jarvis, owner of several Vapor Station shops and president of the Ohio Vapor Trade Association (OHVTA). Jarvis is mobilizing the association to fight back, if necessary. One of the two Mt. Vernon vape shops, Rock Vapor Scissors, is an OHVTA member.
It’s possible the ordinance won’t go anywhere. It’s also possible the council could pass a traditional Tobacco 21 law that bans sales of both products to under 21’s. Some of the council members at last night’s meeting pushed back at the idea of banning vapes while leaving cigarettes available.
“So in other words, an 18-year old can go out and buy a pack of Marlboro’s, which we know gives him cancer, but he can’t go out and buy vaping products?” council member Chris Menapace asked, according to the Oneida Dispatch.
The city law director told Menapace that the state has no rules on the sale of e-cigarettes, which is incorrect. Ohio has set the age to buy vapor products at 18. He also claimed that the provision was copied from “a number of other jurisdictions,” which is absolutely not true. No other city has such a law.
Sam Barone, the lone Democrat on the council, also questioned the idea of making vapor products less accessible than cigarettes. “I don’t see the logic in that,” said Barone. “I mean, as much as I abhor smoking and vaping and would counsel my kids never to touch the stuff, 18- to 21-year-olds, they should be able to make these decisions for their own.”
The council agreed to listen to various points of view on the vaping ordinance before making a decision. And when Chris Menapace suggesting removing the sales ban from the ordinance, other members expressed support. The council will consider an amended version before further public discussion.
Although the next legislative session of the council is on Nov. 13, the third reading and hearing on the vaping law may be postponed till a later date because one member in unable to attend. Whenever the law is debated, James Jarvis says he’ll be there with reinforcements. Meanwhile, Mt. Vernon vapers will hopefully be energized, calling and emailing their city council members and spreading the word.