Fairfield debates tobacco, vape retailer regulations

More than 40 businesses sell traditional tobacco products in the city, with 90% carrying vape products.

Fairfield leaders plan to do something about the city’s overabundance and proximity of tobacco and vape stores.

City staff wants to curb the amount of tobacco and vape stores, which are defined as establishments that have at least 30% of their retail space dedicated to tobacco and/or vape (also known as e-cigarette) products and accessories.

“When you read the data, and you really dig into it, it’s quite striking,” said Development Services Director Greg Kathman. “It’s an evolving topic, not only for this local region but statewide and even national. Things are changing pretty rapidly on this.”

In Fairfield, there are 42 businesses that sell traditional tobacco products, and of those establishments, nearly 90% sell vape products. A dozen of those businesses are almost exclusively vape shops.

The issue around these types of businesses is youth are purchasing or have access to these products, and in Ohio, as of late 2019, it’s illegal to sell or distribute any tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, to anyone under 21 years old.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, smoking leads to more than 480,000 deaths annually in the United States and harms youths who smoke. The CDC reports nicotine harms a developing brain and impacts attention, learning, mood, and impulse control. The agency also reports nicotine use in adolescence may increase the risk for future addiction to other drugs.

E-cigarettes, or vapes, have been the most commonly used tobacco product among the U.S. youth since 2014, and in 2020, nearly 20% of high school students reported using a vape within the previous 30 days. The biggest issue

“As a resident, it sounds like we got our hands tied in what we have right now,” said Fairfield Superintendent Billy Smith. “You can’t fix it today, but you can think towards the future.”

Fairfield staff proposed five measures City Council could take in order to address the growing number of tobacco and vape shops in the city, which there are five along Pleasant Avenue and Nilles Road in the city’s Town Center area.

While Fairfield City Council isn’t prepared to do everything being proposed by staff, the body is ready to take some action, even though some of the measures won’t have a big impact on the current tobacco and vape shops in the city.

First, the council is prepared to consider improved zoning regulations for any new tobacco and vape shop ― again, defined as an establishment that devotes at least 30% of its display floor to tobacco and vape products, accessories and devices ― by implementing set back standards. Specifically, city staff is recommending that no future tobacco or vape store be within 1,000 feet from another such store, as well as 1,000 feet from any educational facility, daycare, park, or library. They would also only be permitted within certain districts, primarily on Ohio 4 and in the city’s downtown.

These regulations would not impact any current tobacco or vape store as they would be grandfathered in. However, that grandfather protection ends if the use of the storefront changes or it remained vacant for at least six months.

“Planning commission will still need to review this, (City Council) will still need to review this, but this is the draft we came up with in consultation with our consultant and looking at some other communities,” Kathman said.

The council will also consider updating the city’s codes related to smoking prohibitions to include vaping and establishing the smoking age to be 21. While these are laws at the state level, Fairfield’s practice is to mirror local laws to reflect state laws.

The third initiative is to have enhanced enforcement efforts, which the police department already does, but this will include increasing the enforcement efforts to prevent sales to underage buyers. It would also look to cite the owners, not the clerks who may sell tobacco or vape products to someone under 21. This would include pursuing personal accountability, increased financial liability and/or criminal charges against store owners.

“When looking at the different options and recommendations, there’s a focus on what’s going to work and what will actually be effective,” said City Law Director Steve Wolterman. “As much effort as the police department has done ― and they’ve done a great job in the past ― unfortunately, these businesses don’t view those fines and penalties associated with sales as a deterrent to them containing to do it. It’s the cost of business, instead.”

Another that may not be considered at this point in time would be to ban flavored tobacco products in e-cigarettes. Federal law prohibits cigarettes from containing flavors other than tobacco or menthol, but that does not apply to e-cigarette products. Five states and 370 local governments have either restricted or prohibited the sale of all flavored tobacco products since 2019.

The cities of Columbus and Bexley passed legislation to ban the sale of all flavored tobacco products beginning in 2024. While other local governments have discussed similar action, none have taken the same measures as the cities of Columbus and Bexley.

An initiative that could take place before any flavor ban would be a tobacco retailer licensing program, but further discussion and metrics from neighboring communities are needed before a decision can be made.

Fairfield will also consider implementing a temporary moratorium on new tobacco and vape stores in the city. It could be a six- or nine-month ban as the administration and council further discuss the matter.

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