New Colorado law opens door for local nicotine tax

A change in state law will give Colorado’s counties, cities and towns new powers to regulate nicotine products, including electronic cigarettes, beyond statewide restrictions this summer. Discussions across Summit County are early, but some local leaders are optimistic the county and towns will work raise the purchasing age of tobacco products and impose a new local nicotine tax.
Hugh Carey /

A 20-count pack of Marlboro cigarettes can cost over $6.75 at grocery stores in Breckenridge, where town leaders have a mind to chip away at underage tobacco usage rates with a local nicotine tax.

New state legislation will give Colorado’s counties, cities and towns expanded powers over the sale of nicotine products, including e-cigarettes, in their individual jurisdictions this summer.

In Breckenridge, officials are still gathering information about how the changes at the state level might play out at this point, and any efforts to impose a local sales tax on nicotine products are still in their earliest stages. However, town leaders are seriously considering it.

According to a national database that tracks tobacco taxes, a pack of cigarettes averages $5.26 in Colorado, and the state ranks 39th on the list of states with the highest taxes on cigarettes. By comparison, a pack of cigarettes costs more than $10 in New York, which has the highest taxes in the country.

Adult smoking rates in Colorado have steadily decreased over the last few decades. However, a sharp, recent uptick in minors using electric cigarettes — over 26% usage in 2017 — has raised new warning flags with the national average at only 13.2 percent.

“Exactly, we’re at twice the national average,” said Lauren Gilbert, a nurse with Summit County Public Health.

Locally, almost 10% of middle school students in Summit County reported having tried e-cigarettes and over 40% of the county’s high school students admitted to using e-cigs in the last months, she added, pointing to the most recent Healthy Kids Colorado survey.

“Those statistics are really astounding and concerning because we know that, yes, adult smoking rates have gone down. … but if we’re getting kids addicted to nicotine that might be creating another generation of lifelong smokers for the tobacco companies,” Gilbert said.

The looming changes in state law led town manager Rick Holman to test the waters with elected officials, as he brought up the topic last week to gauge town council’s willingness to support a local nicotine tax.

And support he found. Prefacing the idea, Holman told council members that the data proves that price influences behavior, and they should expect reduced usage rates for every percentage tacked on to a local nicotine tax.

Holman said he expects that efforts to impose a local nicotine tax will become a countywide push, and a workgroup could come together soon, as a local nicotine tax could go to voters as early as the November ballot.

Detailing what he believes could soon be options for Breckenridge with the new state law about to take effect, Holman said the town might look at a “comprehensive licensing” process, raising the minimum age to buy tobacco-related products to 21 and imposing a local nicotine tax.

In response, Breckenridge Town Council was all-in, and much of the conversation focused on keeping nicotine out of the reach of minors.

On Monday, Holman said over the phone that it’s too early to say exactly what will happen with local tobacco controls. Last week’s discussions, he continued, were only meant to gauge interest.

Even with town leaders expressing their support, Holman said there’s still a lot of work remaining before any ballot question goes to voters.

“There’s some work to do over the summer to see where this ends up,” he said, emphasizing that a workgroup, which has not yet been formed, would need to fully understand how all the components of the new state law before making any recommendations.

While it’s still early, there is serious interest in Breckenridge, and that might not be the end of it. Based on his conversations with other officials in the county, Holman said other governments might join Breckenridge in favoring stricter local rules on nicotine products.

A worker at the town of Frisco said that because of spring break, no one was available to confirm town officials are considering a local nicotine tax or raising the purchasing age on Monday.

However, the Summit Board of County Commissioners had already taken a position to support the new state law before its passage, and Commissioner Thomas Davidson had testified on its behalf.

On Monday, Davidson said the county and towns will all have to take a close look at the new law and decide what’s best for their jurisdiction. Still, he’s optimistic the county and towns may be willing “to share the homework, do the analysis” and can set new rules on nicotine sales across the county together.

“We just started the conversations locally, but I’m very hopeful,” he said, adding that the commissioners fully understand “the impact nicotine use has on public health and especially the health of our youth.”

The question about a local nicotine tax stems from state legislation that was signed into law by Gov. Jared Polis on March 28 and takes effect July 1.

With it, Colorado’s counties, cities and towns will soon be allowed to impose their own restrictions on nicotine products more stringent than state regulations, including banning the sales to anyone under 21 without fear of forfeiting state tobacco tax money.

Other provisions allow for a home-rule city, town or county to levy a special sales tax on nicotine products, if approved by voters, while dictating how counties should coordinate with cities and towns on a local tax.

If there’s a taste for a local nicotine tax in Breckenridge and Summit County, what happened last year in Aspen might be a precursor for what to expect here.

In a series of actions approved by town leaders and voters, Aspen dramatically sharpened the price of tobacco last year by imposing a local, $3-per-pack tax on cigarettes and a new 40% tax on other nicotine products.

Aspen’s cigarette tax is scheduled to increase 10 cents a year until it tops out at $4 a pack. At the same time, the town has also moved to raise the legal age for purchasing tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, from 18 to 21.

In approving the local nicotine tax, Aspen’s voters favored the measure by nearly a 3:1 ratio.

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