Wake County commissioners today took another step forward in their mission to keep kids healthy and tobacco-free.
The board voted unanimously to change development regulations to prevent stores that primarily sell tobacco and hemp products from opening within 1,000 feet of schools, parks, greenways, homes and other similar retailers. The new ban would only apply in unincorporated regions of Wake County, where the County has planning authority, and not in areas that fall within town or city limits.
“Evidence shows that reducing the availability of tobacco to minors is an effective way to curb its use,” said Shinica Thomas, chair, Wake County Board of Commissioners. “As a board, we are committed to the health, safety and quality of life of all of our residents – especially our children.”
The Wake County Public School System originally requested the change in February following growing concerns over the proximity of tobacco and hemp retailers to schools. County Planning and Public Health staff worked with the school system to explore and respond to the issue.
While North Carolina state law prohibits local governments from adopting regulations regarding the sale, distribution, display and promotion of tobacco, governments have clear authority to regulate land uses through zoning. Today’s vote amends a section of the county’s Unified Development Ordinance, which contains policies governing the use of land and buildings within Wake County’s planning jurisdiction.
- This amendment only affects new retailers in Wake County’s unincorporated areas. It does not apply to those within municipal (city or town) limits.
- Five Wake County municipalities, including Apex, Fuquay-Varina, Knightdale, Rolesville and Zebulon, already regulate tobacco retailers through their own development regulations. It would be up to other municipalities to enact similar regulations
- The new rule only applies to retailers where the sale of tobacco and hemp products are the principal or primary use of the business — so, grocery stores and gas stations are not affected.
- According to data provided by the Poe Center for Health Education, roughly 800 stores in Wake County sell tobacco products. This number includes grocery stores, gas stations and standalone tobacco and hemp retailers.
- Thirty of the total retail outlets were located in unincorporated Wake; however, none were standalone tobacco or hemp retailers.
An ongoing effort
This isn’t the board’s first move to make Wake tobacco-free. In November 2022, commissioners voted to expand the county’s tobacco-free ordinance to prohibit tobacco use, including vaping, in all indoor public areas in unincorporated Wake County, like shopping malls, gaming facilities and movie theatres, as allowed by NC law.
That vote broadened the definition of what a tobacco product is and expanded on existing rules that already prohibited tobacco use, including vaping in county buildings, vehicles and grounds, including county parks, playgrounds, athletic fields and greenways.
Wake County now has a full-time tobacco-prevention health educator who works with municipalities and community members around the dangers of tobacco products.
Tobacco use continues to be the leading cause of preventable death, disease and disability in the United States. Annual healthcare expenditures in North Carolina directly caused by tobacco use exceed $3.8 billion. Wake County's 2023 adult smoking rate is 12%.
Youth vaping continues to be a public health epidemic, with more than 2.5 million youth reporting e-cigarettes use in 2022. Usage among NC high school students has increased over 1,000% since 2011 (1.7% in 2011 to 20.9% in 2019).
The Poe Center Youth Empowerment Group has worked since 2020 to educate and inform their peers about the dangers of e-cigarettes and vaping. The work being done by Wake County and Wake County Public School System has been influenced by this youth-led group.
To find resources for quitting tobacco use, as well as information around Wake County’s Tobacco Prevention and Control Initiative, visit wake.gov/tobaccofree.