Tobacco tax

Jurisdictions from Rifle to Summit County and pretty much everywhere in between have either restricted tobacco purchases to those over 21 years old or are considering doing so. Many governing bodies are also implementing higher taxes on the deadly products.

If you are under 21 years of age and looking to score a pack of smokes in the Roaring Fork Valley, the options are fast diminishing.

Last week, the Glenwood Springs City Council voted to raise the minimum age for the purchase of tobacco products from 18 to 21, while simultaneously voting to ban the sale of flavored tobacco products within city limits.

Next Tuesday, the Eagle Board of County Commissioners will also vote to raise the minimum legal age to purchase tobacco products to 21.

In the past two years, Aspen, Basalt, Snowmass Village and Carbondale have also raised the minimum legal age for the purchase of tobacco products from 18 to 21.

Given that discussions are ongoing in Pitkin and Garfield counties to perhaps follow suit, people under 21 will need to drive pretty much to the next time zone in order to procure tobacco products.

But that’s not all on the Roaring Fork Valley anti-tobacco front. At Tuesday’s meeting, Eagle County commissioners will decide whether to put a question to voters asking to increase taxes on tobacco products. Again, that follows in the footsteps of Aspen and Basalt, which, in 2017, raised taxes on all tobacco products.

Glenwood Springs will add a tobacco-tax increase-question to its November ballot.

As well, according to City Manager Jay Harrington, there are discussions on having a similar tax-increase question on the ballot in Carbondale next April, but that is not finalized.

The Roaring Fork Valley is fast becoming Mordor in the eyes of local tobacco users.

Here would be a good time to point out that, traditionally, taxes on tobacco products are collected by the state, with municipalities and counties getting a rebate based upon sales numbers.

Once local governments make the decision to raise taxes on tobacco products sold within their jurisdiction and/or make the decision to raise the minimum age to purchase tobacco products, they not only lose those state rebates, but they take on the additional burden of administering the collection of those tax dollars and the enforcement of local tobacco ordinances. 

The Eagle BOCC tabled their scheduled tobacco-related discussion last Tuesday so that results of a community survey on the matter could be tabulated.

“The reason for tabling the sale age/licensing resolution from this week to next was to allow time to receive results from the survey, which will stay open through Sunday, plus work with partners and retailers on picking the date that makes the most sense for the new age to go into effect if the resolution passes,” said Kris Widlak, Eagle County’s director of communications.

“The survey was distributed both through the mail and online,” she continued. “It was sent to just over 17,000 households. The criterion was mailboxes with at least one active voter. I expect some — if not all — of the results to be shared publicly during next Tuesday's meeting as the board considers the resolutions.”

The survey commences by asking recipients “If an election were held today, would you vote ‘yes’ in favor, or ‘no’ to oppose, the following potential question: Eagle County taxes be increased by $3 million in 2020 by the imposition of new taxes beginning January 1, 2020, of 15 cents per cigarette or $3 per pack of 20 cigarettes and a new sales tax of 40 percent on the sales price of all other tobacco and nicotine products, with the tax revenues used for the specific purposes of public health programs, education and prevention; with all expenditures subject to annual financial audit?”

The survey further asks recipients:

• In your opinion, should Eagle County’s efforts to reduce access to tobacco and nicotine products for teenagers and underage users be a high, medium or low priority or not a priority at all?

• Would you be more likely or less likely to vote ‘yes’ in support of this measure if you knew the Board of County Commissioners will also raise the legal age to purchase cigarettes, e-cigarettes, vaping and other nicotine products to age 21 or would it make no difference one way or the other?

“This initiative started with pleas from the youth, health providers, educators and parents in our community, who helped us recognize vaping and nicotine addiction as a new public health crisis,” said Eagle BOCC chair Jeanne McQueeney.

“Those discussions included presentations from local high schoolers to the county and several towns, as well as statistics showing teen tobacco and vaping use on the rise,” Widlak said. “Also, the towns of Avon and Basalt have already done this, and Pitkin and Summit counties are considering it. If kids or adults can jurisdiction shop, these efforts as deterrents are obviously less effective.”

Prior to March 2019, it was illegal for counties to increase sales taxes on tobacco products or to raise the minimum age for the purchase of tobacco products. That legal reality meant that new tobacco-based ordinances enacted at the town or city level could be skirted by simply driving outside municipal limits into unincorporated areas.

HB19-1033 changed that. As a consequence, in all likelihood, an increase in the minimum age to purchase and possess tobacco products and imposition of significantly increased taxes on tobacco products will likely be the law of the land from Independence Pass all the way down the Colorado River past Rifle and upriver all the way over Vail Pass into Summit County, which is also jumping headlong onto the anti-tobacco bandwagon.

And it’s not small fiscal potatoes we’re talking about here. Basalt guesstimated it would raise something on the order of $32,000 all told from the implementation of its new tobacco taxes in 2018, which imposed a $2-a-pack local tax increase on cigarettes and a 40-percent increase on all other tobacco products. The new tax ended up raising approximately $175,000 for the first six months of the tax, according to Town Manager Ryan Mahoney.

The money by the wording of the ordinance goes to worthy causes. 

“This year, we have helped provide financial support for the Basalt schools for education for parents around substance abuse and vaping,” Mahoney said. “As well, we have supported the Hope Center, which provides mental health services to our community, and finally we have partnered with other upper-valley communities, Pitkin County and Aspen Valley Hospital to help provide a detox facility.”