Aspen City Council on board with raising tobacco-buying age
Members of Aspen City Council said Monday they are willing to forgo upward of $75,000 in annual tobacco tax revenue by licensing Aspen tobacco and nicotine merchants while raising the purchasing age from 18 to 21.
Their comments came after hearing a case made by proponents of raising the legal age from 18 to 21, which would put tobacco and nicotine sales on the same footing as marijuana and alcohol. The city also issues licenses to purveyors of cannabis and alcohol.
Led by Pitkin County Medical Officer Dr. Kimberly Levin, the presenters offered data showing that 88 percent of adult smokers began the habit by age 18. Nicotine addition, Levin argued to the council, is tougher to beat than addictions to heroin, cocaine and alcohol.
By requiring Aspen’s merchants of tobacco and nicotine devices, such as vaporizers and e-cigarettes, to be licensed to sell the products, the city would surrender the tax revenue it currently collects from the state for tobacco sales. However, the city could ask voters to approve an Aspen tobacco tax in the future.
“If we are licensing the sale of that, we would have to forgo the revenues that are generated by the state,” City Attorney Jim True told the council. “We could enter our own sales tax, and that would require a public vote.”
While the purchasing age would be raised under the ordinance, the consumption age would not. In other words, 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds still would be able to legally use tobacco and electronic nicotine delivery systems products within city limits.
The proposed ordinance will go to City Council at a later date for a first reading, followed by a second reading that will allow members of the public to weigh in. If passed, the ordinance would require Aspen’s six retailers of tobacco — Aspen Luggage, Carl’s Pharmacy, Cigar Bar, City Market, One Love and Local’s Corner — to buy a license and adhere to its conditions.
Matt Pavia, the owner of the One Love Aspen smoke shop, told the council passing such an ordinance is “so wrong on so many levels.”
Pavia said few of his customers are between the ages of 18 and 20, but offered, “Can we stop making laws? Maybe live and let be?”
Pavia argued young adults should be allowed to make their own choices about buying tobacco.
“I appreciate you guys’ idealism, but we’re adults here and we can make our own decisions,” he said, noting that “I don’t see an epidemic of 18- to 20-year-olds smoking. I’m a small-business owner and to me, you’re screwing us over.”
The council wasn’t persuaded. They instead directed their staff to combine the two ordinances proposed — one was to raise the age to buy tobacco products, the other to license electronic nicotine delivery systems — into one law. That ordinance would raise the age to 21 and require sellers of both tobacco and electronic nicotine delivery systems to have city-issued licenses.
Underage buyers could go to the Aspen Business Center, which is in Pitkin County and has retailers that sell tobacco products, or further downvalley. But Levin said she plans to bring the proposal next to Pitkin County with the hopes of other municipalities following suit.
“This is an important issue and we need to approach it aggressively,” Councilwoman Ann Mullins said.
Police Chief Richard Pryor said his officers would not conduct undercover work to crack down on offending businesses. The Department of Environmental Health would make at least two inspections a year of the business, which would face first-time fines of $500 and possible license suspension. The fines would increase with each subsequent violation.
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