Eagle County ups legal age for tobacco/nicotine purchases, effective starting November
EAGLE — Parent Nancy Cole said there’s a not-funny observation making the rounds about local teens use of e-cigarettes.
“The big joke I heard last year was ‘Why are there toilets in our vape rooms?'” Cole said.
On Tuesday, the Eagle County Board of Commissioners approved two resolutions: one to up the legal age to buy tobacco products from 18 to 21 — taking effect in November; and the second to propose a sales tax on tobacco products to voters in November.
During the Tuesday hearing before the Eagle County Board of Commissioners, Cole was joined by about a dozen community members who urged the county to enact a new local licensing program that changes the legal purchase age for cigarette, tobacco and other nicotine products from 18 years to 21 years. Additionally, the group voiced support for the county’s plan to present a ballot question to the voters this November that will seek approval for a special sales tax on the purchase of cigarettes, tobacco products and nicotine products.
“I am here to tell you I completely support you raising the purchase age to 21,” Cole said. She spoke about how vaping has quickly become a major issue for local teens.
“Kids were vaping and had Juuls before we even knew what they were,” Cole said.
“Vaping is easily accessible in our schools,” she continued. “We can change this. It is harming our kids.”
Ultimately, the county commissioners agreed.
Eagle County Public Health and Environment Policy and Partnerships Strategist for Youth and Families Mandy Ivanov and Eagle Valley High School senior Lilly Reynolds presented the county license/sales tax election proposal.
Ivanov noted that last year the Colorado Legislature approved a new measure that authorizes counties to more stringently regulate the minimum sales age for tobacco and nicotine products and to impose taxes of all tobacco and nicotine products. With that change in state law, she said three of the counties bordering Eagle County are taking action.
“This trend is growing and because we are leading the way, the Front Range is also following us,” Ivanov said.
According to Reynolds, the state law changes are coming at a critical time. Results from the 2017 Healthy Kids Colorado survey showed that nearly 40% of local high school youth and 23% of local middle school youth have tried vaping. Additionally, the survey showed that 61% of local tobacco product users under age 18 reported they purchase their own cigarettes and 50% of local vape product users under age 18 reported they buy their own products from brick-and-mortar stores.
“Vaping was originally marketed as a safe alternative to smoking, but it’s still nicotine,” Reynolds said. “Tobacco continues to be the leading cause of preventable death in Colorado.”
To combat the rising use of nicotine products, Ivanov and Reynolds promoted a three-pronged approach that would include instituting a new licensing system, increasing the legal age to purchase products and increasing the sales price.
Ivanov noted that there are several components/benefits of instituting a county licensing program. The license would:
- Establish 21 as the minimum legal sales age.
- Establish a self-sustaining fee to cover administrative and enforcement costs.
- Inform the county who is selling tobacco products and where the businesses are located.
- Allow for local monitoring for compliance.
- Allow for timely, meaningful penalties for non-compliance.
“Efforts to prevent use are in vain unless the environment changes,” Ivanov said.
Reynolds urged the commissioners to institute those changes, sharing stories of classmates and their vaping experiences. In particular, she talked about a friend who was kicked off her sports team and has experienced a number of drug problems during her high school years.
“I distinctly remember her saying the worst thing she had ever done was getting addicted to nicotine,” Reynolds said.
Before proceeding with their new state-approved regulation powers, the county commissioners presented an opinion survey to local residents. That survey closed on Sunday.
Bill Ray, of WR Commincations Inc, presented the survey results. He said 17,436 surveys were mailed out to county residents and 400 were completed. Ray said that 56% of the respondents said that the current effort to reduce access to tobacco and nicotine products for teenagers and underage users should be a high priority. An additional 25% identified it as a medium priority. The survey showed 49.36% of respondents supported increasing the legal purchase age to 21.
Regarding the sales tax ballot question, 76% of respondents supported a $3 per-pack sales tax on cigarettes. When the per-pack tax was increased to $4, 64% of respondents supported the question.
During Tuesday’s meeting, the licensing and legal age actions had support from everyone in the room. The ballot question issue question netted some criticism.
Don’t lump products together
Sheryl Medina, owner of a local vape shop, voiced her support for increasing the legal purchase age for nicotine products.
“We are on your side. We want a healthier community,” she said. “I am extremely in favor of the licensing. We do, actively, try to keep these products out of the hands of children.”
Like Reynolds, Medina had a personal story to share about the impact of vaping. She said her husband started smoking at age 12 and tried to quit repeatedly. The only method that worked for him was switching to vaping.
“He hasn’t smoked in five years because of vaping,” she said. “We get letters, we get calls, all the time from people who are grateful for having these products available.”
Medina said instituting a high sales tax on products would make it difficult for her to continue her business and she said local brick-and-mortar vape shops weren’t adequately notified about Tuesday’s discussions. She also said vaping use among adults has been stigmatized by big tobacco interests.
“The United States is the only country that thinks vaping is as detrimental as cigarettes,” said Medina. “You can’t lump them together. It’s not the same thing.”
After hearing public comment from nearly a dozen community members including law enforcement officials, school administrators and medical professionals, the commissioners weighed in on the topic.
“We have gotten a lot of feedback about personal freedoms,” said Commissioner Kathy Chandler-Henry.
Ultimately, however, she said the threat that tobacco/nicotine products present to the overall health of youth in the community over-balance that argument.
“I understand there is some concern in the public about yet another tax and I think that is fair,” she added.
But like the county’s tax on marijuana products, Chandler-Henry said the proceeds from the tobacco and nicotine products tax would be earmarked for a specific purpose. In this case, the money would go to public health programs and education.
“This is all happening very quickly,” said Commissioner Matt Scherr.
He noted that a number of mountain towns have already enacted tobacco/nicotine restrictions and judging by the survey results, local residents support those actions.
“Clearly this is what our community wants,” he said.
Commissioner Jeanne McQueeney noted the county regulations and the proposed sales tax mirror what is happing in various municipalities. She said applying the same rules to unincorporated Eagle County is a fairness issue.
“The businesses really do deserve a level playing field,” she concluded.