Smoke alarm at the Statehouse Featured

10:08am EDT July 22, 2002
Who's responsible when a minor buys tobacco? The clerk who sold it? The store owner? The parent? The youth? It all depends on who you ask-especially around the Statehouse.

At least three proposals addressing underage tobacco use have been introduced in the Ohio Senate this session, and the Governor has teamed up with the Ohio Attorney General to offer a fourth. Most would stiffen penalties for businesses that sell tobacco products to underage consumers.

The good news for retailers is none of these proposals appear to be headed for a floor vote anytime soon. State lawmakers have recessed for the summer and aren't likely to return until after the fall elections. Even then, a lame duck legislature is unlikely to take up such a heated issue. But that doesn't mean the debate won't be rekindled when the 1999-2000 session begins in January.

"This will be a political issue for awhile because of what's going on at the federal level," says Andy Herf, executive director of the Ohio Association of Convenience Stores.

Current state law prohibits tobacco sales to those under age 18. Retail clerks who sell tobacco to minors can be fined up to $250 for a first offense and $500 for a second offense. There are no penalties for minors who purchase tobacco.

"It's not even illegal in Ohio for anyone under 18 to possess tobacco," says Tom Jackson, president of the Ohio Grocers Association. "It's illegal for them to purchase it, but there are no sanctions for [the] purchasing youth. If you are caught with tobacco, it is no big thing."

Sen. Rhine McLin (D-Dayton) apparently wants to close that loophole. She got the ball rolling last fall with Senate Bill 152, which would prohibit minors from using, possessing, purchasing or attempting to purchase any tobacco product. First-time violators would be required to attend a smoking cessation class. A second offense would result in another class plus community service. A third offense would add a 1,000-word essay assignment on the effects of smoking.

Senate Bill 220, offered by Robert Latta (R-Bowling Green), takes the issue a step farther. It would penalize minors for purchasing or possessing tobacco-and allow a judge to temporarily prohibit tobacco sales by retailers who repeatedly sell to underage consumers.

"People should be punished for selling to kids," Herf says, noting that Ohio retailers have been stepping up their own efforts to curb underage tobacco sales by participating in the national "We Card" program for the past two years.

Under Senate Bill 220, the parents of minors who possess or purchase tobacco would be notified on a first offense. Penalties for a second offense could include public service or smoking cessation classes at a judge's discretion. The bill calls for a third offense to result in a fine, but that could be amended to temporarily suspending the youth's driving privileges.

"Some groups say fines are too harsh," says Herf, whose group is backing this bill along with several other business organizations. "But if you want kids not to smoke, let's start by telling them not to smoke. You have to do something to them."

Sen. Grace Drake (R-Solon) sees things differently. Her proposal, House Bill 221, would not penalize youths who use or possess tobacco. Instead, it would raise the minimum age to buy such products from 18 to 21, impose civil rather than criminal penalties on those who sell to underage consumers, and require all retail outlets in Ohio to pay an undetermined licensing fee to sell tobacco products. Business owners could lose these licenses if their employees sell tobacco to underage buyers three or more times within two years. The bill does not indicate whether violations would be tallied by individual stores or across a chain.

Gov. Voinovich and Ohio Attorney General Betty Montgomery would also like to see a statewide tobacco licensing program that would raise funds for stricter enforcement of tobacco laws-and direct monetary penalties for violations to business owners for the first time. The two say more enforcement is needed since tobacco use among minors continues to increase with nearly a third of Ohio's high school seniors using tobacco daily. Ohio's retailers insist, however, that youth access to tobacco has decreased 25 percent since the "We Card" program began in 1996.

"I think the legislature wants to do the right thing," says Jackson. "We just have to get the right bill in front of them. Until we hold those who smoke accountable for their actions, licensing won't be effective in this."

Who to call

To voice your opinion on Senate Bill 152 or Senate Bill 220, contact Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Louis Blessing Jr. (R-Cincinnati) at (614) 466-8068 in Columbus or at (513) 385-5302 in his home district.

To voice your opinion on Senate Bill 221, contact Senate Health Committee Chairwoman Grace Drake (R-Solon) at (614) 466-7505 in Columbus or at (216) 248-9297 in her home district.

To share your opinion on tobacco legislation in general, contact the state senator representing your area. To get a listing of home and office phone numbers for your state senator, contact Nancy Byron of Small Business News at (614) 848-6397.