Dillon considers new taxes, age restrictions on nicotine products
Dillon is pushing forward with the county’s efforts to curb the use of nicotine products in the area, though some officials in the town have concerns with the proposal.
Carri McDonnell, Dillon’s finance director and liaison to the county’s nicotine task force, led the town council through a work session discussion on nicotine taxes and policy during the town’s meeting Tuesday. While the majority of the council was relatively quick to jump on board with the proposed regulations, others fought back in a heated conversation that brought into question the efficacy of changing regulations and the role of government vs. personal responsibility.
Earlier this year, Colorado passed a new bill allowing local governments to impose their own regulations and taxes on nicotine products in their jurisdictions. Summit County created a task force, including representatives from the county’s towns, to discuss possible changes in regulation. McDonnell said the task force already has met three times and has come up with several potential changes in hopes of slowing nicotine and tobacco use, including raising the minimum age to purchase nicotine products from 18 to 21, new licensing and enforcement policies, and a local tax of 40% on all nicotine products and $4 on every pack of cigarettes.
Youth usage of nicotine products, particularly vape pens and electronic cigarettes, largely has driven the conversation so far. Lauren Gilbert, a nurse with the Summit County Public Health Department, said there’s a good reason for that.
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“We have 50 years of evidence showing how harmful tobacco use is,” Gilbert said. “And we’ve done a good job with prevention. But the use of electronic smoking devices has really increased significantly. … Twenty-six percent of teens are reporting vaping (in Colorado). And taking it to the local level, we can look at the Healthy Kids Colorado data where over 40% reported using an electronic smoking device in the last 30 days.
“Part of the reason why that is astounding and so important is we know nicotine is a highly addictive drug. We also know that people under the age of 25 are more susceptible to addition.”
Notably, Summit High School students with the Youth Empowerment Society of Summit County attended a recent town workshop to lobby for the restrictions, detailing the prevalence of e-cigarette use among schoolmates.
While higher taxes, increased age requirements and new licensing and enforcement policies could help to prevent the county’s youths from getting their hands on vaporizers and cigarettes, it’s important to note they won’t be the only ones affected.
According to the most recent data from the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment (2015-17), just under 12% of adults in the department’s Region 12, including Summit County and other Western Slope communities, are cigarette smokers. Of note, 75% of those individuals reported trying to quit within the past year.
The move also might disproportionally affect individuals with lower incomes and lower education levels. According to demographics for cigarette smokers across the state (2017), individuals with less than a high school education were considerably more likely (26.3%) to be smokers compared with college grads (6.2%), and individuals with a low socioeconomic status (23.1%) were more likely to smoke than those not in a low socioeconomic status (9%).
Some Dillon officials are hesitant to dive into restrictions, citing concerns that the restrictions are too punitive and not well enough researched.
“It’s a step, and keeping it out of the hands of kids is huge,” said Councilman Mark Nickel, who joined council members Jen Barchers and Kyle Hendricks as largely coming out against the proposal. “I just have a problem with the answer going from 18 to 21. … I want to take this out of the hands of kids, I just don’t know this is the way.”
Nickel continued to call a $4 per pack of cigarettes tax “criminal,” noting that it’s essentially a 70% increase in the average price of cigarettes. Barchers agreed with the sentiment, pondering why nicotine users are being singled out for their habit.
“What if we were all taxed on our bad habits?” said Barchers, who urged the council to pump the brakes on the move until more data was available from other municipalities adopting new regulations. “It’s really unfair that if someone likes soda or beer, that all of a sudden it’s an extra $4 for their bad habit. That’s a lot for that group, and I don’t think it’s fair.”
Ultimately, council decided to cautiously move forward with the proposal for now. Changes in age limits, licensing and regulation would come from the town, requiring the council to pass an ordinance. The ordinance would outline a $500 to $600 license fee for nicotine retailers — there are currently four in town — to help fund two compliance checks a year and educational efforts.
An increase in the tax most likely would take place at the county level, requiring an election on the issue this November and an intergovernmental agreement between the county and town. Summit County would be responsible for the collection and remittance of the tax, and a new board would be formed to oversee the allocation of the tax revenue. It’s unclear what that allocation would look like, but initial concepts suggest at least some of the new revenue would go toward prevention and education programs, administration and the Summit Community Care Clinic.
Similar regulations already have been passed in some mountain communities, including Aspen, Basalt and Avon, which all implemented new taxes on nicotine products along with increases in age restrictions.
“These strategies have been proven to prevent smoking in youth and adults,” Gilbert said. “And the end result is behavior changes such as cessation. … If it can help push behavioral changes, then we’ve done our jobs.”
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