Westerville could be joining other central Ohio communities in adopting a policy that would ban tobacco sales to people under age 21.

At its regular meeting March 20, Westerville City Council hosted Franklin County Public Health Commissioner Joe Mazzola to discuss options for changing the age of tobacco sales.

Mazzola said he was "thrilled" Westerville was considering a change, adding that his department is emphasizing it throughout central Ohio as Tobacco 21.

"This is a really important public-health strategy to improve our prevention strategies for our communities," he said.

Central Ohio cities that have already taken steps to change their tobacco laws include Bexley, Columbus, Dublin, Grandview Heights, New Albany, Upper Arlington and Worthington.

Communities have approached the issue from different directions. Some put a regulation in place that puts the onus on law enforcement to see the law is followed, while others have preferred a licensing approach.

Under Columbus' Tobacco 21 initiative, Columbus Public Health will begin assessing fines in mid-April to stores that get caught selling tobacco products to anyone younger than 21, said John Richter, supervisor of the agency's food-protection program. Included on the list of restricted sales items are vaping liquid, e-cigarettes, smokeless tobacco, hookahs and cigars.

After the penalty phase kicks in, the first offense is a $500 fine. Subsequent violations are $1,000 each. All fines can be appealed, Richter said.

Repeated sales to underage buyers could result in the loss of a license to sell tobacco, he said.

Westerville City Manager David Collinsworth said the city likely would follow the lead of Dublin, which recently adopted a plan that focuses on licensing from Mazzola's department.

"This, fundamentally, is a health issue," Collinsworth said.

Mazzola agreed, saying data suggests that adopting a higher minimum age for tobacco purchases helps to reduce use among children.

"This is a policy that does impact youth prevalence," he said. "You see a lot of times that the age gap where teens are able to secure tobacco products from their older peers and friends in that age group.

"By raising that age to 21, you can significantly reduce that ability for those younger teenagers," he said.

If approved, the health department would issue licenses for the retail sale of tobacco products, and would have the power to both issue and revoke those licenses.

Mazzola said his department likely would use a complaint-based system.

The idea received no pushback from council members, and vice mayor Kathy Cocuzzi said she was happy it was being discussed.

"It's nice to see that we'll hopefully be considering it again," she said.

Ultimately, council directed staff to return with an ordinance, which Collinsworth said likely would not be ready by council's April 3 meeting.

Staff writer Gary Seman Jr. also contributed to this report.

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