CLEVELAND — Starting October 17, Ohio banned the sale of all tobacco-related products, including vape pens and cartridges, to customers under 21-years-old. 5 On Your Side Investigators tested vape shops to find out if they are following the state’s new rules. Our hidden cameras revealed more than half of the shops we tested sold vape products to our underage buyer. Even more troubling, we found enforcement of Ohio’s new rules is minimal at best.
Vaping was initially marketed as a safe way to quit smoking cigarettes. Instead, growing research shows the products are addictive, potentially dangerous, and even lethal. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has confirmed 37 deaths related to vaping so far this year.
“Vaping is so crazy scary right now,” said Kimberly Covey, Executive Director of the American Lung Association in Ohio.
“We have 37 deaths and we don’t know what caused those other than the link is vaping,” she said.
To curb teen use, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine (R) signed “Tobacco 21” regulations into law this summer. The law raised the age to purchase cigarettes, tobacco-related products, and nicotine products, like e-cigarettes, vaping pens, vape cartridges and e-juice from 18 to 21.
“Tobacco 21 is such a good law if it’s implemented correctly,” said Covey.
Hidden camera test
But are Ohio vaping shops following the state’s new rules?
To find out, 5 On Your Side recruited Rachel, our 19-year-old “underage buyer” to test 10 randomly selected vape shops.
We sent her with a hidden camera into stores in Cleveland, Elyria, Eastlake and Willoughby.
Despite prominently displayed signs detailing the new ‘Tobacco 21’ law, we found sixty percent of the vape shops we tested illegally sold vape products to Rachel.
In some cases, the stores allowed Rachel to purchase vape products even after checking her ID.
“They're still selling it to me when they know that I'm underage,” she said.
We showed our hidden camera video to Covey.
“So, no question. Retailers aren't abiding by this law at all,” said Covey.
At Planet of the Vapes on W. 130 St. in Cleveland, the clerk asked to see Rachel’s ID, but didn't balk at the 19-year-old's driver's license. Instead the clerk used the underage ID to enter information into their store’s system and enter Rachel into a raffle.
“That way when you come back in, you won't have to worry about your ID, if you don't have it. You'll just be looked up by phone number,” said the clerk.
At Retro Vape 2 in Willoughby, a clerk took a long look at Rachel’s ID, but still sold her vape juice.
“Good to go there,” said the clerk after he checked her driver’s license which clearly indicates she's only 19.
Then, at The Real Deal Boutique in Cleveland, two staff members inside the stores knew selling a vaping product to Rachel was illegal, but rang up her purchase anyway.
“Oh, you gotta be 21,” said a male clerk to Rachel after checking her ID and seeing she was underage.
“Go ahead and sell it to her. No one actually pays any attention,” said a nearby female staff member.
“Okay,” said the clerk.
‘Just come back’
Three additional stores we tested didn’t even bother to check Rachel’s ID, including, Cloud Brothers Vape Shop in Cleveland.
When Rachel requested a box of Air Factory Strawberry Kiwi Salts, owner Keith Marolt said, “Alright. Is that all you need? ” Marolt never asked to see her ID or any questions related to her age.
Four stores we tested refused to sell vape products to Rachel. Each cited the new law.
However, before she left Premium Vapors in Willoughby the clerk had a suggestion for her.
After calling the “Tobacco 21” law “really stupid”, the clerk said, “If you know somebody that can buy it for 'ya , just come back. I can’t deny you then.”
‘A meaningless law’
Our 5 On Your Side investigation also found enforcement of the ‘Tobacco 21’ law at vape shops is minimal at best due to a number of loopholes.
The Food and Drug Administration can conduct compliance checks at vape shops. However, we found it only tested a handful in Ohio last year, and 9 out of the 10 vape shops we visited hadn't been inspected by the FDA. Also, the federal age to purchase vape products is still 18, so the feds cannot enforce sales made illegally in Ohio to 18, 19 and 20-year-olds.
The Ohio Investigative Unit, which does compliance checks for the Ohio Department of Health, can only cite stores with a liquor permit, which excludes most vape shops.
The Cuyahoga County Board of Health is collaborating with several municipalities that enacted local ordinances. However, so far, they've conducted just one compliance check at a vape shop.
“This is really, I hate to say it, a meaningless law,” said Covey. “A pat on the back to Ohio for saying, ‘Hey, great, ‘Tobacco 21’, but it’s meaningless unless you implement it correctly.”
Covey said, like alcohol, stores that sell vape products should be licensed. Then, if they fail compliance checks, the businesses would be in jeopardy of losing their license.
“If there’s no risk to the retailer, there’s no point in having this law,” she said.
A spokesperson for Ohio Governor Mike DeWine said the governor is committed to curbing vaping among Ohio’s youth and interested in finding ways to bolster enforcement action in the state.
‘We all make accidents’
5 On Your Side Investigators reached out to the vape shops that sold vape products to Rachel to ask why they broke Ohio’s new law.
“We all make accidents, right?” said Keith Marolt, who owns Cloud Brothers Vape Shop with his brother.
Marolt admitted he failed to check Rachel’s ID before selling her a vaping product.
“I know exactly who you’re talking about,” he said. “When she left, I’m like, ‘Oh my God. I should have carded her.’”
He said he supports the new rules and usually cards his customers.
“I feel terrible this even happened. I’m shaken,” he said. “I don’t want to make profit off of teenagers. That’s not why I’m in this industry. I’m in this industry to help adults quit smoking.”
The owner of Retro Vape 2 declined our interview request, but said he was “disappointed” his clerk sold vape juice to an underage customer. He plans to consider buying machines that scan IDs.
When 5 On Your Side Investigator Sarah Buduson reached out to Purple Haze, the person who answered the phone hung up on her.
The other vape shops did not return our calls.