COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – Fruity vapes, menthol cigarettes and other flavored tobacco products will soon return to gas station shelves in Columbus and other Ohio cities that banned their sale.
The Ohio Senate on Wednesday voted to override Gov. Mike DeWine’s veto on a provision prohibiting local governments from enacting regulations on the sale of tobacco — including by banning flavored tobacco products. The policy, which will go into effect in three months, means that newly-enacted flavored tobacco bans in Columbus, Worthington and other central Ohio cities cannot be enforced.
Sen. Hearcel Craig (D-Columbus) said upholding local authority to ban flavored tobacco is essential to safeguarding public health, and especially the health of minors. He argued that decreasing tobacco use occurs at the ground level, starting with local control over regulations followed by “comprehensive statewide policy.”
Sen. Kent Smith (D-Euclid) argued that overriding the veto wouldn’t just prevent bans on flavored tobacco — it would render long-standing local tobacco licensing regulations void. Those programs often target the sale of tobacco products to minors, something he said was essential to promoting public health.
“There is nothing liberating about the addiction,” Smith said.
Republican state lawmakers have tried multiple times to prohibit local governments from restricting the sale of tobacco, only to be thwarted by DeWine’s vetoes. In 2022, he struck down such a proposal. Last July, he struck the provision from the rest of the state budget, saying that local bans were “essential” to curb nicotine use, especially among children, without a statewide ban in place.
“The removal of local regulation would encourage youth nicotine addiction and immediately undo years of progress to improve public health, which is why a similar provision was previously vetoed.”
In one of the last sessions of 2023, the House barely hurdled over the 59-vote threshold to override DeWine’s line-item veto.
Multiple Republicans, including Sen. Shane Wilkin (R-Hillsboro), defended the override as necessary to protect the livelihood of small business owners. When a business in one town can sell flavored tobacco but a store just one town over cannot, Wilkins argued it hinders competition.
“Regulations like this tend to affect small businesses like mine dramatically more than they affect others,” Wilkin said.
Sen. Rob McColley (R-Napoleon) similarly argued that allowing local governments to enact their own regulations would create an unreasonable burden on business owners — those who operate in multiple jurisdictions would have to keep track of a network of different prohibitions and restrictions. He added that the legislature should “zealously” consider overriding the governor whenever a provision passes with supermajority support.
Trent Johnson, a cashier at The Releaf Center, said since the flavored tobacco ban went into effect in Columbus, small businesses like those specializing in selling vapes had to close.
“Our customers even said like they could go over to Westerville and just get a vape,” Johnson said. “So like, yes, it’s hard to hear customers say they can go over here and buy that, and it’s like, well, there’s nothing we can do about that.”
Columbus’ flavored tobacco ban went into effect Jan. 1, outlawing the sale of vapes, cigarettes, cigarillos, chewing tobacco and any other tobacco product that taste or smell like fruit, candy, vanilla, menthol or mint. Worthington and Grandview Heights also banned flavored tobacco in the new year, while Bexley banned its sale in 2020.
Columbus Public Health called the vote “unacceptable,” saying in a statement it will not just impact the city’s flavored tobacco ban, it will also prevent the city from enforcing a ban on selling tobacco products to people under 21. The health department said it is working with the city attorney’s office to “explore all options.”
“This decision does not protect the health and safety of our community,” the statement read. “Instead, it puts flavored tobacco back into the hands of children for a lifetime of addiction.”
Zach Klein, Columbus city attorney, said his office plans to sue to block the provision from going into effect.
“Regardless of whether you think that we should have tobacco regulation or not, cities still should have the ability to make that decision for themselves, and as a city attorney, you know, it’s further erosion by the legislature and the city’s ability to have home rule to make decisions for itself,” Klein said.
A Worthington spokesperson said the city is consulting Columbus Public Health to evaluate how the vote impacts its policies and to similarly “look at all options.”
Multiple health organizations denounced the override. A statement from the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network said the override only benefits “Big Tobacco” at the expense of Ohioans’ health. Ken Fletcher, Ohio advocacy director for the American Lung Association, said in a statement that the vote “rolls back much of the progress” in reducing tobacco use in the state.
“Smoking is the leading cause of preventable death,” Fletcher said. “It’s killing Columbus residents and Ohioans at an alarming rate. State legislators should support local municipalities that are trying to save lives and prevent another generation of smokers, not prevent or disable them from doing so.”
They weren’t alone. Undergraduate student Frankie Madosky with the Coalition to End Tobacco Targeting is disappointed by the lawmakers’ move.
“Every day, I go in the bathrooms, there’s people vaping in my high school,” Madosky said. “Even in college, every party you go to, there is some sort of flavored tobacco.”