New prevention and cessation programs set to emerge from countywide nicotine and tobacco tax

A display of vaping products is available on the counter at Smok N' Bra in Frisco on Aug. 14, 2019.
Photo by Liz Copan / Summit Daily archive

FRISCO — Local governments are putting together new plans to help reduce tobacco and nicotine use, hoping to put to work funds collected from the area’s recently enacted tax on the products.

Last year, Summit County voters convincingly passed a new measure meant to help improve the overall health of the community by pricing nicotine and tobacco products out of common usage and using the funds collected by the tax to promote new smoking prevention and cessation programs.

Nine months after the implementation of the tax, officials are finally ready to put some of that money to use, looking to establish new anti-tobacco media campaigns, update prevention education in schools, and improve the availability of affordable public health services, among other initiatives.

“It’s really fantastic,” Summit County Manager Scott Vargo said. “The community was overwhelmingly in support of this effort, so we’re thrilled to get some of these programs up and running and out impacting youth nicotine use, vaping and more.”

Last year, local governments made a strong push to help reduce tobacco and nicotine use in the county, in particular among the area’s youth population that had previously reported increased rates of cigarette and vaporizer use in the 2017 Healthy Kids Colorado Survey conducted by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Officials partnered with local students from the Youth Empowerment Society of Summit to come up with solutions to combat the issue, including raising the minimum age requirement to purchase the products from 18 to 21 years old and requiring retailers to get new licenses to sell the products.

The implementation of the tax was the final big thrust. On Jan. 1, the voter-approved measure imposed a $4-per-pack sales tax on cigarettes, along with a 40% tax on all other tobacco and nicotine products — including e-cigarettes and vaporizers — that will increase 10% annually for the next four years starting Jan. 1, 2021.

County and town officials pledged to funnel the tax revenue back to the community in the form of new public health initiatives, and after some delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, they’re finally making good on the promise.

They’ll have plenty of seed money to work with. Officials are projecting the tax will have collected upward of $2.2 million by the end of the year. That money will be distributed proportionally to the towns where the taxes were collected (29% to Breckenridge, 8% to Dillon, 23% to Frisco, 30% to Silverthorne and 10% to Summit County) and then will be allocated toward the new programs.

A community nicotine work group formed to provide town and county officials with recommendations for new health-based initiatives, and it is awaiting adoption of plans from the county and local towns to start implementing the programs. Lauren Gearhart, the health promotion and prevention specialist who is heading up the group, said they’re taking a multipronged approach by providing prevention and cessation programs as well as better community resources to help individuals find healthier ways to deal with stress.

“In addition to health care — going into your primary care provider or getting a flu shot — there are a lot of other things in someone’s environment that contribute to their overall health,” Gearhart said. “It could be job and food security, child care and affordable housing, or access to health care through insurance.

“It’s important to understand that if there are stressors in the community such as a lack of child care or affordable housing, and if there isn’t a healthy coping mechanism … people sometimes fall back on substance use, specifically of tobacco.”

The plan is to provide more than $1 million to the Family & Intercultural Resource Center, Building Hope Summit County and other local nonprofits over the next 15 months to ensure community members have better access to essential resources.

Other initiatives would be more directly geared toward nicotine and tobacco use. The county is creating its own cessation program, and the plan calls for a hefty $800,000 infusion into the Summit Community Care Clinic to support its existing cessation services, treatment for conditions related to tobacco use and more.

Gearhart said the group is recommending a chunk of the funds go straight to Summit School District to improve mental health resources for students and provide evidence-based prevention curriculum among other initiatives.

The plan also calls for a local media campaign bent toward prevention, pointing individuals to quit lines on bus advertisements and trying to normalize passing up on substances.

“I know it seems like there is a high rate of vaping use among our youth, or if you ask someone they’ll say all of my peers and friends are vaping,” Gearhart said. “They’ll give you indicators that as high as 70% to 80% of their peers are vaping. But it turns out — and it’s reflected in the Healthy Kids Colorado survey data — that it’s actually much lower than that.

“Even at our highest levels of substance use, it is less than 50%. So social norming is typically seen in mass-media campaigns, letting youth know that most people aren’t using and that it’s normal that people don’t vape or use marijuana, for instance.”

Stakeholders will start to roll the programs out as soon as next month, assuming they get the go-ahead from local elected officials. Gearhart noted that some initiatives, like the county’s adult cessation program and the new school curriculum, likely won’t arrive until next year.

While officials are hopeful that the programs will make a difference in helping community members kick the habit — and making others think twice before picking up their first cigarette or vape pen — the tax has stung others.

John Cutroneo, the former owner of Slope Side Cigars in Breckenridge, said the tax hike put him out of business and has made it impossible for specialized shops catering to tobacco or nicotine users to survive in the area.

“They made it so the bigger companies — City Market, 7-Eleven, liquor stores — they can sell those products without it hurting their bottom line,” Cutroneo said. “But for a specialty store like I was trying to provide, that was good for weddings and other things, I was just shocked they would go after my business. I don’t know of any other business that was as negatively and directly impacted by it.

“It sucks to build up a business for 8 1/2 years and then, out of nowhere, have someone tax you out of business. Either way, it won’t be sustainable in the future, either. That’s why I knew I had to get out when I did.”

Cutroneo alluded to Proposition EE, a question on the November ballot that would incrementally raise the tax on nicotine and tobacco products statewide over the next seven years. If approved, the tax would generate an estimated $175.6 million in additional revenue in budget year 2021-22, the first full year it would be in effect. The number would jump to $257.9 million in the 2027-28 budget year.

The additional funding would be allocated primarily toward education spending, housing development, health care programs, tobacco education programs and general state spending.

But the tax also would place an even greater burden on tobacco and nicotine users in the area. Officials said a state tax change wouldn’t have any impact on the county’s tax and that individuals hoping to buy tobacco or nicotine products in Summit County would have to pay both.

Of course, increased taxes on the products are meant to serve as the biggest preventative measure for reducing usage. But as Summit County residents await the arrival of new health programs, officials say the current tax is just too new to know for certain how effective it has been as a deterrent for nicotine and tobacco use in the county.

“Unfortunately, it’s really impossible to figure that out,” Vargo said. “The tracking of nicotine and tobacco product sales was sort of this weird black box, where we really didn’t have the ability to understand what that number really was. This is Year 1 of making those collections. We’re going to have to collect some data over the coming years to understand how that number is changing over time.”

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