Pitkin County commissioners have directed public health staff to move forward with plans for tobacco-control policies that would include limiting sales only to those who are 21 or older and a ban on all flavored-nicotine products.
Also, the county will consider implementing a new tax on tobacco, which would require a public vote. Commissioners expressed favor for all three initiatives, and said they would like to see them implemented sooner rather than later. The tax question could possibly be placed on the November ballot.
During a work session Tuesday, commissioners heard details from public health director Karen Koenemann about a multifaceted proposal that seeks to discourage tobacco sales and use. Also, Dr. Kim Levin, medical officer for the county’s board of health, spoke about the ill effects of tobacco on youth.
The county’s move is aided by state legislation passed in March. House Bill 1033, “Concerning a Local Government's Authority to Regulate Products Containing Nicotine,” gives counties the authority to pass evidence-based tobacco legislation in line with what municipalities have been able to do. It also removes a financial penalty for instituting a license requirement on tobacco retailers, according to a memorandum from Koenemann to the board. The state law took effect Monday.
Information presented to commissioners included a health survey showing that e-cigarette use among Aspen High School students is higher than the state average. Colorado youths’ use of e-cigarettes is said to be the highest in the nation.
“One potential explanation for Colorado’s high rates of youth use is that Colorado has relatively lenient tobacco policy: Retailers are not required by state policy to hold a license, the state tobacco tax is one of the lowest in the country, and e-cigarettes are not included in the tax code,” the memo states. “Nicotine exposure during childhood and adolescence actually rewires brain development, predisposing young people to further addiction and disrupting learning, memory development and attention for the short- and long-term.”
On the issue of adult smoking, commissioners were told about the impacts on government. State and federal spending relating to smoking amounts to more than $650 per year for each Colorado household, the memo states. “Meanwhile, the tobacco industry spends an estimated $140.1 million in marketing in Colorado and $9.4 billion in the U.S. annually,” the memo adds.
County initiatives to discourage tobacco use would follow recent actions in the city of Aspen. In November 2017, the city’s 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 structure was set up to increase by 10 cents per year starting in 2019. Nearly 75 percent of voters approved the change.
In addition, Aspen implemented a 40-percent tax on all other tobacco or nicotine products, including delivery items such as e-cigarettes and vaping pens. A new license fee of $500 was created for all retailers selling tobacco products.
In early June, the city council voted to ban the sale of all flavored tobacco products. During discussions, and also during Tuesday’s county meeting, Levin contended that the flavors in vaping products are marketed to children, one reason for their rising popularity.
Commissioners wanted to know which county department would handle tobacco retail licensing. Currently, there are 10 stores in unincorporated Pitkin County that sell tobacco products.
County Manager Jon Peacock said the details would have to be researched, but that the environmental health department could possibly be the entity that handles licensing.
Levin spoke of how tax increases and raising the minimum age of purchasing tobacco products to 21 has proven to reduce use. “A tax works,” she said.
Concerning the rise in youths using flavored tobacco products, she said that many of them like the flavors and don’t really know that the products contain nicotine.
Commissioner Patti Clapper asked whether the county had the authority to ban tobacco-related advertising. She also said a mechanism should be set up to address online tobacco sales.
Commissioner George Newman sought to find out whether the county could initiate a ban on all e-cigarettes, as the city of San Francisco recently did.
Peacock said staff would research the various questions and provide answers in time for the next discussion on the issue, which was not set for a specific date.
Commissioner Greg Poschman said he’s already been getting calls from tobacco lobbyists seeking to dissuade officials from creating more regulations and limitations.