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Banning flavored tobacco in Columbus is a complex, controversial issue

Supporters of a proposed ban point to health statistics and the impact of flavored products on minority populations.

COLUMBUS, Ohio — It was a packed house at a Tuesday night meeting focused on a proposed ban on flavored tobacco products in the city of Columbus. In fact, the crowd reached fire code capacity, and many people could not get inside.

“It is an important conversation that needs to take place in our community,” said Columbus City Council Member Shayla Favor, who is the chair of the Housing, Health and Human Services Committee.

Those in the crowd heard messages from city and health leaders about the dangers of flavored tobacco on minority and youth populations, with many of those products being marketed to the Black community.

“This is a public health crisis in our community, and in 2020, most folks may not know, that the city along with the county declared racism a public health crisis,” Favor said. “This is one way that we can begin to unpack what that means.”

Favor pointed to 2018 statistics from Columbus Public Health. They show that there were 160,000 smokers in the city of Columbus at that time. Of those, 100,000 were Black. And, of those Black smokers, 60,000 used menthol and mint-flavored products.

“Banning menthol and flavored tobacco products is a matter of health equity here in Columbus,” said Columbus Public Health Commissioner Dr. Mysheika Roberts.

But many in the crowd were there to speak in opposition to the proposed ban, mostly focusing on the impact it could have on small businesses.

One of the speakers was Abdullah Ansar, who moved from Pakistan to attend The Ohio State University. He now owns three local stores.

“I am worried about what this will mean for my employees, my customers and me,” he said.

Greg Wellinghoff, president of the convenience store distributor The Keilson Dayton Company, also spoke up for protecting businesses. He worried that if smaller convenience stores lose revenue because of a ban on flavored tobacco products, they could close and have a huge impact on the neighborhood.

“Tobacco retailers are much more than just tobacco retailers in this city,” Wellinghoff said. “They’re corner markets. And many of the neighborhoods these tobacco retailers are in are food deserts.”

Favor acknowledged the challenges of “threading the needle” on such a complex issue, balancing protecting minority populations from unfair targeted marketing and health concerns to protecting small business owners, many of whom are minorities themselves.

“We know that our small businesses took a hit during COVID, and that’s why it’s incredibly important as a member of council, along with all of my colleagues, that we take the time to have this conversation in the community and to meet with our small business owners as well as balancing the negative health impacts,” Favor said.

There are more upcoming meetings on this issue.

In-person and virtual conversations with small businesses will happen on Nov. 2, 16 and 30. A public hearing is scheduled for Nov. 9.

People also can provide feedback at flavoredtobacco@columbus.gov.

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