Commissioners

Pitkin County commissioners discuss a proposed item for the fall ballot in which voters would approve or deny a new tax on cigarette packs and other tobacco products sold in unincorporated areas of the county. The officials held a work session at Basalt Town Hall on Tuesday afternoon following a morning discussion in Glenwood Springs with Garfield County commissioners related to broadband infrastructure.

Mirroring recent moves undertaken in Aspen, Pitkin County commissioners have given their blessing to a fall ballot item that will ask voters for a new sales tax on cigarettes and tobacco-related products.

If the tax passes, smokers would pay an extra $3.20 on each pack of cigarettes — to rise another 10 cents each subsequent year — and a 40 percent tax on the retail price of all other tobacco products, starting in 2020. The new taxes would apply to sales at the 10 retail establishments that sell tobacco products in unincorporated areas of the county.

Commissioners gave direction to staff on the potential ballot question during a Tuesday afternoon work session held at Basalt Town Hall. The ordinance containing the ballot question won’t be discussed officially until an initial reading set for their Aug. 14 regular meeting. A second reading and public hearing would be held Aug. 28. Election day is Nov. 5.

At a previous work session on July 2, commissioners listened to a presentation about the health dangers of tobacco and the burden on taxpayers from Karen Koenemann, county public health director, and Dr. Kimberly Levin, medical officer for the county’s board of health. Much of the impetus behind the local movement to raise taxes on tobacco stems from studies showing that price increases discourage youths, and many adults, from smoking. 

The information provided to officials included a health survey showing that e-cigarette use among Aspen High School students is higher than the state average. Also, Colorado youths’ use of e-cigarettes is said to be the highest in the nation.

The proposed tax is likely to be part of a three-pronged policy aimed at discouraging tobacco use among youths and adults. Limiting tobacco sales only to those who are 21 or older, and banning all flavored-nicotine products, were two other possible measures discussed earlier this month. 

Only the potential tax question was discussed during Tuesday’s meeting, given the time constraints of readying the language for the fall ballot. The other regulations can be approved by commissioners later — through ordinances that don’t require voter approval.

In November 2017, nearly 75 percent of city of Aspen voters opted to place an additional $3 sales tax on every pack of cigarettes and change the minimum age for purchasing tobacco from 18 to 21. The tax was structured to increase by 10 cents per year starting in 2019. In 2020, the per-pack tax in Aspen will rise to $3.20 — the same rate at which Pitkin County commissioners would like to kick off the county’s tax.

Related: Pitkin County officials discuss plans for tobacco controls

In addition, Aspen voters implemented a 40 percent tax on all other tobacco or nicotine products, including delivery items such as e-cigarettes and vaping pens. The city also created a new license fee of $500 for all retailers selling tobacco products. Those decisions followed an Aspen City Council vote in May 2017 to raise the minimum age for tobacco purchases to 21.

In early June, the Aspen City Council took things a step further, voting to ban the sale of all flavored tobacco products. During city hall discussions, and also during the July 2 county work session, Levin contended that the flavors in vaping products are marketed to children, one reason for their rising popularity.

On Tuesday, commissioners were shown a chart indicating how other municipalities in the Roaring Fork Valley have addressed tobacco policy recently. Aspen, Snowmass Village, Basalt, Carbondale and Avon have implemented limitations on tobacco sales to those 21 or older. (The minimum age in the county currently stands at 18.)

Retail licensing fees have been created in Aspen, Snowmass Village, Basalt and Avon. New tobacco sales taxes were approved by voters in Aspen, Basalt and Avon.

Some commissioner questions on Tuesday were focused on how to spend the new tax revenue. Koenemann said the money could cover the cost of administering the tax as well as programs relating to tobacco- and substance-abuse education. The uses don’t have to be specified in the ballot language, she said.

Revenue also could fund youth programs, she suggested, but commissioners said they would prefer to direct some of it toward programs that benefit the community as a whole, including senior services.

Jodi Radke, regional director for Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, also spoke at the work session. She said public support for new tobacco taxes is stronger when there is a “nexus” between consumers and areas where the revenue is directed. Uses for the money should be transparent, outlined to voters during the run-up to the election.

“The public will respond to that,” she said.

Andre is a reporter for Aspen Daily News. He can be reached at andre@aspendailynews.com.