Is a barrage of illegal cigarette ads driving Cleveland’s high smoking rate? 19 Investigates

City’s public health director says smoking is the leading cause of preventable death in Cleveland.
Is Cleveland's high smoking rate linked to barrage of illegal cigarette ads?
Published: Sep. 13, 2023 at 7:09 PM EDT
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CLEVELAND, Ohio (WOIO) - It’s way past time for action, according to the public health director of the city of Cleveland, as research shows that the city has the highest rate of smoking in the country and that the leading cause of death in Cleveland is smoking.

Dr. David Margolius said research from the Prevention Research Center for Healthy Neighborhoods at Case Western Reserve University pegs the smoking rate in the city at 35% compared to the national average of just 11%.

That’s a stark difference and has to change. Margolius is determined to make it change.

“Tobacco is the number one leading cause of death in the city of Cleveland, so it is our number one priority,” he said.

Why Cleveland? That’s the first question, what is driving Clevelanders to smoke at a rate that is 24% higher than the national average?

For one according to the Case research, adults in Ohio, are smoking at a level that is double the national average at 22% and that that is the same number for Cuyahoga County overall.

Dr. Erika Trapl who is the Director of the Case Western Reserve University Prevention Center for Healthy Neighborhoods led the research and said there area variety of reasons why Cleveland may have the highest smoking rate in the country, but one stands out.

“We know that people in the city of Cleveland struggle with a lot of challenges and that there is a high rate of poverty in the city which has shown to be associated with smoking,” she said.

But there is much more to this story and it revolves around the sheer force of tobacco advertising that, Doctors Trapl and Margolius said is a major problem especially when it comes to teenagers who they believe are being lured into smoking at a young age but advertisements for flavored tobacco products.

And in most cases they are illegal.

City Ordinance 680A allows for cigarette advertisements in the central business district, essentially downtown, but those advertisements are illegal everywhere else across the city but you would never know it if you take a drive around the city.

19 Investigates did exactly that.

Dr. Margolius told 19 News he believes there are about 600 retail shops, convenience stores and bodegas around the city, that sell tobacco, and 19 Investigates spent a month driving to more than 300 of those shops and what we found was cigarette advertising, illegal advertising, that was impossible to miss.

“In the city of Cleveland there are about 600 tobacco retailers so that is one for every 600 people and this is a big problem for a community, with tobacco products in your face all the time,” he said.

Violators of the current ordinance, can face fines up to $1,000.00 and can even face a jail sentence of up to six months.

But the ordinance is not being enforced, as it does not specify who actually is responsible for carrying out the enforcement, and Dr. Trapl said that is a significant problem as many of those advertisements, for flavored tobacco products, are geared to teenagers.

We spoke to a handful of store owners, all who told us that they had no idea that the advertisements were illegal and that nobody from the city or the police had ever questioned them about the advertising and that’s not a surprise seeing as no one, at least in the ordinance is responsible for enforcement.

What needs to change, according to Dr. Charles Modlin, the Director of Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity at Metro Health Medical Center, is the cycle of targeting people in the city, specifically teenagers.

“The advertising needs to be eliminated because it is specifically designed to culturally entice the use of these mentholated products in especially minority populations, minority communities,” he said.

Tune in to 19 News at 6 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 14 for a special report from our Solutions Journalism Team on ways the experts believe can help reduce the smoking rate in the City of Cleveland.