Tobacco

If Pitkin County Ballot Issue 1A passes on Election Day, all purchasers of tobacco products sold in unincorporated areas of the county will be required to pay a new local tax.

Tobacco kills; it also injures.

It does not cripple the body suddenly and violently, as would a drive-by shooter spraying bullets toward a crowded porch of partygoers in big-city USA. Tobacco, and its addictive agent nicotine, are more like silent slayers — poisons that slowly take over one’s body for several years until it’s often too late for a remedy to be effective.

While that may seem like a lot of doomsday talk relating to cancer, pneumonia or heart disease, consider information from the World Health Organization, which notes that tobacco kills more than 8 million people annually. Of that total, 1.2 million are individuals who don’t use tobacco directly, yet are exposed to toxic, second-hand smoke.

The ill-health effects of tobacco, imbibed in whatever form, are well-known, and the primary reason why Pitkin County government has decided to place an item on Tuesday’s ballot asking voters to implement a tax on cigarettes and other tobacco products.

Unanimously, the five county commissioners who placed the tax proposal on the Election Day ballot weren’t looking at the concept as another way to generate revenue. Buoyed by studies on methods that keep people from smoking, vaping or dipping, they hope that by raising the price of tobacco products, youths and adults alike will be deterred from making such purchases.

“I hope everyone supports this important tax,” said Commissioner George Newman at a county meeting last week. “We know that tobacco use is the most preventable cause of disease, disability and death in Colorado. It kills over 5,000 Coloradans each year.”

According to Newman, tobacco use is a bigger killer “than alcohol, HIV, car crashes, illegal drugs, murders and suicides combined.”

In presenting information to commissioners over the last few months to get the ball rolling on a potential ballot measure to raise a tobacco tax, county public health officials cited information about the large number of local youths — even Aspen middle-schoolers — who have started using tobacco products. One of the keys to stopping or curbing such use, they said, may be through taxation.

If passed, the tax would increase the per-pack price of cigarettes by $3.20 starting on Jan. 1 for all store sales in unincorporated Pitkin County. The number was derived by the per-pack tax rate at which the city of Aspen, which implemented a voter-approved tobacco tax two years ago, will stand in 2020. The rate will increase by 10 cents per year until it reaches $4.

The measure also would tax all other tobacco products at 40 percent of the retail rate. That means buyers of snuff, chew, flavored vaping oils, cigars or whatever else that may contain tobacco at, for example, a price of $10, will now have to pay a local tax of $4, plus a smaller state tax, to get their nicotine fix.

On Tuesday, the county’s public health department issued a news release about the dangers of vaping, which is becoming a popular pastime among local teens, given that the tobacco industry has introduced lots of fun flavors to e-cigarette products: everything from strawberry to creme brûlée. Pitkin County Public Health Director Karen Koenemann said the issuance of the information was not a case of trying to time the message with the upcoming election.

According to the release, the state Department of Health and Environment recently reported its ninth case of disease linked to vaping. The county is “stepping up outreach” to people who vape or use e-cigarettes, and their families, to ensure they are aware of the risks, the release states.

“This is a serious disease. We have seen over 30 deaths across the country that were completely preventable. And the people who have died were otherwise completely healthy, young people,” Koenemann said in a prepared statement.

Colorado infamously has the highest rate of teens using e-cigarettes in the country, the release says, citing the 2017 Healthy Kids Colorado Survey. Rates of teen use in the Roaring Fork Valley are three to four times the national average. 

“Many people, including teens, have started using e-cigarettes thinking they are ‘safe.’ However, research over the past few years is showing otherwise. There’s a high risk of heart disease, stroke, depression and chronic bronchitis. New research has just shown that e-cigarettes cause lung and bladder cancer in mice. And, for young people, no amount of nicotine or marijuana is safe for the developing brain. That means that even if a cause for this illness is discovered, vaping will still be incredibly dangerous for young people,” the release states.

Risa Turetsky, the county’s tobacco program coordinator, said the Centers for Disease Control is investigating the effects of vaping and the products used in vaping devices.

“Ultimately the message is this: Breathing any chemical, vape, or smoke into your lungs, especially if it is not approved by the FDA, is risky,” she said.

The proposed county tobacco tax is just one aspect of an overall program aimed at stemming use. Later this year, county commissioners are expected to take up two other proposals they’ve already given their informal blessing. One would raise the minimum age to purchase tobacco from 18 to 21. The other would be a ban on flavored tobacco products. Koenemann said public health department staff will continue to research the subjects before going back to commissioners for more guidance or to suggest an ordinance.

Commissioner Greg Poschman, who also is a member of the county’s health board, said Wednesday that he wholeheartedly supports Ballot Issue 1A, the proposed county tax on tobacco products. While voters may go to the county’s administration building, 530 E. Main St., to cast a ballot in person on Tuesday, the opportunity for early voting at the building is being offered today, Friday, Saturday and Monday. Mail ballots also can be filled out and dropped off at boxes in front of the county building or the town halls of Basalt and Snowmass Village.

“We have the highest incidence of teen vaping in the state,” Poschman said. “This doesn’t really fit the view that I have, or that anybody has, of our valley. We know about smoking but we’re just starting to understand the public-health consequences of vaping. Public health departments are just now starting to catch up to this issue. People don’t know what they are doing to themselves.

“This is scary. It doesn’t fit into my idea of this idyllic community.”

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