The Summit County Board of Health voted in September to restrict the number of shops that sell tobacco products, based on population. Summit County Health Department Director Rich Bullough says the policy was particularly meant to address young people’s use of e-cigarettes and vaping.
“It really was pretty clear that it was a step in the right direction, and we're very lucky here in Summit County that we have a board of health that is progressive," Bullough said. "Both in the way that they approach prevention but also in the way that they deal with issues that are of a rising concern.”
The ordinance limits the total number of tobacco retail permits to one license per 1,000 residents. Bullough says Summit County currently has 41 licenses, and the county is nearing a population of 40,000. The county ordinance is more restrictive than state law, and as such, the county had to make the case for limiting tobacco access. The ordinance cites a 2018 Utah Department of Health tobacco report, which says one in five students experimented with e-cigarettes in grades 8, 10 and 12 and that e-cigarettes contain several chemicals, the health effects of which are not clear.
Bullough says the policy doesn’t affect current retailers.
“Really, for the existing tobacco retailers—and that includes both the general retailers and specialty—there isn't any change here," Bullough said. "But as we have new requests come on board, we will not roll those additional licenses out until we hit a certain population to justify that license.”
Federal health officials raised red flags this summer over vaping-related lung disease cases—and more than a dozen deaths. At last count, the Utah Dept. of Health confirmed 71 cases of vaping-related illness in Utah, and Bullough says the county health department has confirmed at least one case in Summit County. Bullough says it’s the job of the health department to control harmful substances, even if it restricts access to adults.
“It's absolutely fair, as a public health department, to put controls on those products, and we now have evidence, obviously, for decades now, that tobacco does kill people. It maims people, and we now, importantly, have evidence that some of the e-cigarette products do the same," Bullough said. "So that is the fundamental intent here. As a public health department and as a board of health, our mission is to protect health and safety, and so that's ultimately what this is about.”
The county’s tobacco retailer ordinance takes effect Jan. 1, 2020. During the 2019 state legislative session, Utah lawmakers raised the tobacco purchasing age from 19 to 20, effective July 2020, then to 21 the following year.