Pitkin County ponders tobacco tax increase
Pitkin County commissioners on Tuesday expressed support for imposing a tax on cigarettes and tobacco products in the county similar to one enacted by the city of Aspen two years ago.
“Parity with (Aspen’s tobacco tax) is perhaps most important,” Board Chairman Greg Poschman said.
Imposing a similar tax in unincorporated areas of Pitkin County would plug the gaps between the municipalities of Aspen and Basalt, which have imposed per-pack taxes on cigarettes and a 40% tax on other tobacco products including e-cigarettes, said Karen Koenemann, the county’s public health director. At their regular weekly work session Tuesday — which was held at Basalt Town Council chambers because commissioners were set to meet with that town’s elected officials after — board members preliminarily agreed to mirror Aspen’s tobacco tax.
That tax — passed by nearly 75% of city voters in 2017 — imposed $3 a pack at first, though the tax is set to increase by 10 cents every year for 10 years until it reaches $4 a pack. Basalt voters overwhelmingly passed a $2 per pack tax and 40% on other tobacco products in April 2018.
Commissioners agreed Tuesday to ask county voters in November 2020 to increase the per-pack price by $3.20 to keep pace with Aspen’s tax. They also will ask voters to approve the 10-cent tax increase for 10 years, as well as the 40% tax on chewing tobacco, e-cigarettes and other nicotine products.
How the county might approach other issues related to tobacco, including raising the minimum age to buy nicotine, banning flavored nicotine products and possible broader bans on nicotine products, will be discussed at a future meeting, Koenemann said.
The city of Aspen raised the minimum age to buy tobacco from 18 to 21 and banned flavored nicotine products beginning Jan. 1.
Colorado has the highest rate of e-cigarette use by youth in the nation, while statewide surveys of high school students in 2015 and 2017 found that Pitkin County high schools “have some of the highest rates in the state,” according to a memo from Koenemann to commissioners.
“Tobacco use remains the most preventable cause of disease, disability and death in Colorado, killing more than 5,000 Coloradans each year,” the memo states, citing statistics from Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids.
However, price increases in the cost of tobacco “have the largest impact on youth initiation and use,” the memo states.
“For every 10% increase in the price, there is a 7% decrease in youth use and a 4% overall decrease,” according to the memo.
Colorado currently taxes cigarettes at 84 cents a pack, which ranks the state 39th out of 50, the memo states. E-cigarettes are not taxed at all by the state.
The money generated by the proposed Pitkin County tax would be used to support substance abuse and tobacco cessation and prevention efforts, administration and establishment and coordination of a Youth Leadership Council, Koenemann said.
One important suggestion for ballot language came from Jodi Radke, regional director for Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids. She said pointed out that both Aspen and Basalt underestimated how much tax they would collect, which means they will have to go back to voters to be able to keep the extra money, she said.
The lesson is that it’s important to overestimate the revenue to be collected so that doesn’t have to happen, Radke said.
The county has 10 retailers in unincorporated areas who would be affected by the tobacco tax, Koenemann said. The proposed Pitkin County tobacco tax would apply to Snowmass Village retailers until the Town Council there decides whether to impose a tobacco tax, said John Ely, Pitkin County attorney.
Ballot language for the issue will be finalized over the coming months.
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