Cleveland City Hall sits at the intersection of Lakeside Avenue and East Sixth Street.
Cleveland City Council announced Monday that $33 million worth of medical debt held by 16,000 Cleveland residents was canceled by RIP Medical Debt, the national nonprofit that buys patients’ debt from hospitals at a steep discount. Credit: Jeff Haynes / Signal Cleveland

Local convenience stores, gas stations and smoke shops have lined up against Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb’s proposed ban on flavored tobacco sales. Meanwhile, a key Cleveland City Council committee chair said he is “not there” on the proposal, either. 

Ward 9 Council Member Kevin Conwell, who chairs council’s health committee, told Signal Cleveland that he would support a statewide flavored tobacco ban. But he did not think a local ban would be effective, he said.

Clevelanders wouldn’t have to travel far to buy flavored tobacco across municipal boundaries in suburbs like East Cleveland or Lakewood, he said. 

“So is it truly, truly stopping people from smoking?” Conwell asked. 

Retailers sent a letter outlining their objections to council members and the city’s public health director on Monday. About 250 establishments are listed as signatories. In the letter, the retailers wrote that a ban would cause them a “devastating loss of sales,” sending customers to the black market for flavored tobacco or to the suburbs for their shopping. 

“These proposed measures are not only ineffective and extreme but will also have profound, unanticipated consequences that will disrupt years of economic growth,” the letter reads. 

The legislation would ban the sale of flavored tobacco and require retailers to obtain a license from the city to sell other tobacco products. The measure defines flavored tobacco as any tobacco product made to taste or smell like menthol, fruit, chocolate, alcohol or a variety of other flavors. 

Mohammad Faraj, a local attorney who prepared the letter, said retailers held a pair of meetings in March to learn about the city’s proposal. Store owners do support Bibb’s efforts on other issues, such as improving city services and neighborhood revitalization, he said. 

While the retailers opposed an outright ban on flavored tobacco, they wrote that they would support educational campaigns aimed at cutting smoking rates. 

“The retail establishments are not the root cause of underage tobacco usage as the proposed ordinance purportedly suggests, and, in fact, we are the first line of defense,” they wrote.

The Bibb administration pitched the ban as part of an effort to cut tobacco use in a city with one of the highest smoking rates in the country. Council introduced the legislation at the public health department’s request in early February. It has not yet received a committee hearing.

The measure received an endorsement from the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, a national anti-tobacco organization. Last December, Bibb met with the campaign’s president, Matthew Meyers, according to the mayor’s calendar. 

Dr. David Margolius, the city’s health director, told Signal Cleveland that retailers would not lose as much business as they feared. He said he was still hopeful that the legislation could find support from council, calling smoking Cleveland’s top health issue. 

He said the city led the way in 2015 when it banned tobacco sales to customers younger than 21.

“This is another chance for us to lead and not fall behind,” Margolius said. 

Government Reporter (he/him)
Nick joins us from the world of public radio. He has more than a decade experience covering politics and government in Cleveland and Cuyahoga County. In 2021, he produced and hosted "After Jackson: Cleveland's Next Mayor," an Ideastream Public Media podcast on the Cleveland mayoral race. He has also covered breaking news, opioid lawsuits and elections nationally for NPR.