Basalt follows Aspen’s footsteps on buying cigarettes, tobacco tax in voters’ hands

Aspen voters approved a new municipal tobacco tax in November. A proposed tax of $2 per pack is in voters' hands in Basalt.
Aspen Times file photo

Basalt is close on Aspen’s heels with groundbreaking legislation to try to decrease smoking and use of tobacco products by children and young adults.

The Basalt Town Council voted 4-0 Tuesday night to approve an ordinance that increases the minimum age to buy cigarettes and tobacco products from 18 to 21. The ordinance also requires tobacco retailers to get a license to sell tobacco products each year. That license can be yanked if retailers sell to someone younger than 21.

The provision takes effect July 1.

The Town Council also hopes that Basalt voters on April 3 approve a proposed new municipal tax on tobacco products. Aspen voters approved a new $3 tax on a pack of cigarettes and a new 40 percent tax on other tobacco products in November by an overwhelming margin.

Basalt’s ballot question seeks a cigarette tax of $2 per pack and 40 percent on other tobacco products.

Aspen was the first municipality in Colorado to approve a local tobacco tax. Basalt would be the second.

“I was very impressed by the bold action Aspen took,” said Basalt Councilman Bernie Grauer, who is leading Basalt’s efforts.

Basalt officials envision the increase in the minimum buying age and the tax as a one-two punch to knock out tobacco use among young adults and children in the midvalley.

“They’re not perfect,” Grauer said of the combination. But research shows that making tobacco products more difficult to obtain results in reduced usage by youth.

Research shows that younger smokers, 12 to 17 years old, typically rely on friends and family between the ages of 18 and 21 to buy their tobacco products, Grauer said. Increasing the buying age eliminates a generation of potential suppliers. The added effort of finding someone to supply cigarettes might be enough to get some kids off tobacco, Grauer said.

He feels increasing the expense of tobacco products will definitely price some consumers out of the market.

“It’s more of a deterrent for those young people under 18,” he said.

Basalt’s ordinance appears to have more teeth than Aspen’s rules. Basalt will check for compliance by retailers at least two times per 12-month period, according to the ordinance. The compliance check will include the use of “decoys” — people under the age of 21 who will attempt to buy tobacco products.

Grauer said the Eagle County Health Department has agreed to supply the decoys. The Basalt Police Department will oversee the compliance checks.

Grauer said a state agency compliance check found a violation by a Basalt retailer in December. Someone younger than 18 was allowed to buy cigarettes. That demonstrates the need to check for compliance with the higher minimum age.

“We know the law isn’t being followed in its current iteration,” he said.

By seeking a local tobacco tax, Basalt gave up rights to collect tobacco tax funds from the state. Even if the ballot question fails, Basalt will not be able to collect the state funds, which have been about $16,000 annually, Town Manager Ryan Mahoney said previously.

But the town’s own tax will raise an estimated $27,000 and $29,000 annually, Grauer said, so there will be a net increase if the measure is approved.

The revenue would go to “drug cessation” programs with organizations that already serve the Roaring Fork Valley — possibly Youth Zone or Mind Springs Health, Grauer said. The funds won’t just be absorbed into the town’s general fund.

The ballot question says the tax revenue would finance “tobacco-related education and tobacco-related health issues, and addiction and substance-abuse education and mitigation.”

Basalt’s ballots were mailed to voters in mid-March with the tobacco tax question. Tuesday is the last day to vote. Ballots must be returned to Town Hall by 7 p.m.

The new tobacco tax didn’t appear to deter people in Aspen from buying cigarettes, chewing tobacco or other products during the first month of implementation in January. The city collected $31,664 in tax revenue for the month and one establishment was late filing its collections. That number was higher than anticipated.