Eagle County’s tobacco tax question: Excessive or justified? | AspenTimes.com

Eagle County’s tobacco tax question: Excessive or justified?

Pam Boyd
Vail Daily
The Eagle County Board of Commissioners will debate a pair of tobacco issues Tuesday — a proposal to raise the purchase age to 21 and a ballot question that would enact a steep tobacco products sales tax in the county.
Denver Post file photo | THE DENVER POST

This fall’s ballot is light in terms of volume for Eagle County voters, but it does feature at least one valley-wide talker — Issue 1A.

The ballot question asks Eagle County voters to support public health programs by instituting a hefty tax on tobacco and nicotine product sales. Question 1A proposes a tax of 20 cents per cigarette or $4 per pack and a 40% tax on the sale of all other tobacco and nicotine products. Proponents note that tobacco-use cessation products such as nicotine patches and gum are exempt from the tax.

In the official TABOR notice — the blue book document sent to all registered voters — ballot issue proponents argue “Issue 1A will help Eagle County support public health programs and protect our citizens, especially youth and teenagers, from the harmful impacts of tobacco, nicotine and vaping.”

The only opposing blue book comment came from a person who self-identified as a “non-smoker.”

“In general, I support this tax, but I feel the amount being proposed is excessive. I think $4 per pack is too much to place on smokers who have the right to choose to smoke or not,” noted the blue book comment. “I think half that would be fair and meaningful to the important message of smoking is bad for your health. I think this excessive amount might guarantee its defeat, thus a loss to our health program.”

The Daily reached out to several local retailers that declined the offer to speak on the record about the proposed tax. However, a number of these business operators agreed that the tax amount is excessive.

Justified action

The exploding popularity of vaping products among local teens spurred the county’s new tobacco/nicotine product rules and this fall’s ballot question.

“I believe so much in what the county is trying to accomplish with this ballot question,” said Chris Lindley, co-chair of Healthy Eagle County, the group lobbying in favor of 1A. “At a young age, it is very easy to become addicted to nicotine.”

Lindley noted Eagle County’s effort to combat the widespread use of tobacco and nicotine products, particularly among youth, is a three-part approach. First, the county increased the purchase age for such products to 21 years. That action was approved by the county commissioners earlier this year and will become effective in unincorporated parts of the county beginning in November. Additionally, the county has instituted a new tobacco/nicotine product licensing program. Several towns in the valley have passed corresponding regulations.

The age 21 regulation is not part of the ballot question, but it is part of the ballot question discussion.

“If someone can serve in the army at age 18, it isn’t fair that they can’t buy cigarettes if they choose,” said one business owner.

“My initial counter to that is to say I was 18 in high school and I wasn’t making the best decisions,” Lindley said. “Many of us look back and think we were lucky to come through high school as unscathed as we did. Why wouldn’t we, as adults, recognize that when you are in high school, you aren’t making the best decisions.”

Lindley argued that the restriction isn’t unprecedented because the legal purchase age for alcohol and marijuana is 21.

“With all three of these substances … there is no health benefit and there are long-term potential consequences,” Lindley said.

As a veteran of the Iraq War, Lindley noted that his young troops had access to tobacco products. “I personally saw them get addicted to nicotine products while in combat,” he said. “We weren’t giving them alcohol and marijuana on the battlefield and telling them it was going to help them. They came home from war with this terrible addiction that they were not able to quit.”

Vaping concern

Lindley said local public health and government officials were slow to recognize and take action to combat the growing problem with youth vaping.

“The bottom line is vaping is not harmless,” he said. ” We have many kids in this valley who have become addicted to nicotine and it’s very hard for these young kids to get off these products once they get on them.”

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and various state agencies, there have been 23 vaping-related deaths in the United States. A recent study from the organization reported that Colorado has the highest vaping rate among 37 states surveyed, with Colorado teen vaping nicotine at twice the national average. Earlier this week, the parent company of local grocery story chain City Market announced that it was discontinuing the sale of vaping products.

“While the dangers of cigarettes are well known, data is just starting to emerge on the threat posed by vaping,” states the blue book argument in favor of Question 1A. “Its impact on developing minds and bodies is becoming clearer from research into the heavy metals, carcinogens and high concentrations of nicotine ingested from vape aerosol. According to the American Association of Pediatrics, vaping products can have two times the amount of nicotine in cigarettes, making quitting even harder.”

Unfair rap

There are many parts of the new tobacco/nicotine product regulations that Sheryl Medina, owner of the local Fast Vape stores, supports. She believes a uniform business licensing requirement will ensure all retailers are following the same rules. She stressed that her businesses does not sell products to kids and voiced support for the effort to keep vaping out of local schools.

But she doesn’t believe the sales tax proposal is fair. In fact, she thinks if the measure passes, it could put her out of business. That would be a shame, she said, because she has seen how vaping has helped many people break their cigarette habit.

In general, Medina believes that vaping has gotten an unfair rap in the media.

“The United States is the only country that thinks vaping is as detrimental as cigarettes,” she said during the August public hearing. “You can’t just lump them together. It’s not the same thing.”

Next week voters will receive their ballots for this fall’s election and, just as the number suggests, question 1A will be the first item listed. The question states that the new sales tax could raise up to $4.5 million annually, although the actual number is expected to be much lower. The high estimate provides leeway for the county to comply with state spending regulations.

Nevertheless, a successful 1A ballot question could generate substantial revenues for public health and education. But Lindley stressed a true measure of success in the effort would be steadily declining revenues from tobacco/nicotine product sales tax. That would mean fewer people in the county were purchasing products.

“The ultimate win would be to generate no money from the tax,” he concluded.

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