Pitkin County to raise tobacco age despite federal action

Pitkin County commissioners are scheduled to vote Wednesday to raise the county’s minimum age to buy tobacco from 18 to 21 years old even though the federal government beat them to it.

“There was a suspicion the feds were gonna (raise the age to 21), but we didn’t think it would happen so fast,” said Karen Koenemann, Pitkin County’s public health director. “We thought it would take nine months to be implemented, but they just went ahead and did it.”

The nationwide age minimum of 21 went into effect Dec. 20, after President Donald Trump signed a $1.4 trillion budget bill that amended the federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, according to an announcement by the Food and Drug Administration.

“It is now illegal for a retailer to sell any tobacco product — including cigarettes, cigars and e-cigarettes — to anyone under 21,” according to the notice on the FDA’s website. “The FDA will provide additional details on this issue as they become available.”

Colorado’s Department of Revenue is aware of the changes in the federal minimum tobacco age, but because it occurred during the holidays and because the state doesn’t license tobacco retailers, it’s not yet clear what action the state will take, said Suzi Karrer, DOR spokesperson.

“I think the federal government took action mainly because of … the vaping issue,” she said.

Wendy Smith, manager of the Conoco gas station at the Airport Business Center, said she’d seen something about the change recently, though it wasn’t of huge importance because the store voluntarily raised its minimum tobacco age to 21 a year ago. A tobacco retailer in Glenwood Springs said her store received a notice from the FDA in the past week.

Regardless, Pitkin County officials plan to move forward with plans to pass a county ordinance raising the minimum tobacco age to 21, Koenemann said.

“This will allow us to have local enforcement,” she said.

Pitkin County’s ordinance, which will go into effect Jan. 8 if commissioners approve it on first reading, will levy a significantly different penalty than state law, Koenemann said.

Colorado law currently says a person under age 18 who purchases tobacco can be fined $100. Pitkin County’s law takes a slightly different approach, where retailers who sell tobacco to those under 21 are held accountable and can be fined a civil penalty of $1,000.

“In the event of a retail sale of cigarettes, tobacco or nicotine products to a minor, liability for violating this prohibition attaches to the sales agent or employee of the retail establishment as well as to the retail establishment’s owner or owners,” according to the Pitkin County ordinance.

“We don’t want to penalize youth,” Koenemann said. “The onus is on the retailers.”

Commissioners are set to debate the tobacco ordinance Wednesday at their regular, twice-monthly meeting, which begins at noon.

In June 2017, the Aspen City Council voted to raise the age, making Aspen the first government entity in Colorado to increase the purchase age.

Pitkin County voters passed a tobacco tax in November, which went into effect. Jan. 1, that adds $3.20 to the price of a pack of cigarettes with an annual 10-cent increase until the tax reaches $4 per pack. Other tobacco and nicotine products will be taxed at 40%.

The city of Aspen was the first municipality in the state to pass a tobacco tax, when voters in November 2017 approved a tax similar to the one now in effect in Pitkin County.


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