USA: American Cancer Society backing city’s plan to levy a tobacco tax
October 7, 2017
The American Cancer Society’s advocacy arm has jumped into the local political fray to support a tobacco tax increase that Aspen voters will decide in the Nov. 7 election.
The Colorado government relations director for the society’s Cancer Action Network this week registered what is so far the only issue committee related to Aspen’s Ballot Issue 2B, which would levy a local tax of $3 per pack of cigarettes or 40 percent on to the cost of other tobacco products, such as chew and e-cigarettes. The cigarette tax would increase 10 cents a year until it hit $4.
No one has organized a committee to oppose the local tax increase, although the owner of two gas-station convenience stores in Aspen previously expressed concern to city officials about the measure’s impact on revenue related to tobacco, as well as incidental purchases tobacco users make when they come in to get their fix.
However, that individual did not voice any concerns in a public hearing held on the tobacco tax proposal in August, opting instead to meet individually with council members and advocate in favor of directing the $300,000 or more in expected annual revenues from the tax toward specific programs aimed at smoking and substance-abuse cessation and education efforts. Ballot language that will be before voters as early as next week, when ballots arrive in the mail, states that funds must be directed toward those purposes.
The tax increase proposal is a follow up to council’s passage in June of a new law that, beginning Jan. 1, will raise the minimum age to purchase tobacco products in the city to 21. The new policy also requires any retailer wishing to sell tobacco to obtain a local license, which could be suspended or revoked if the retailer is found to be violating the purchase-age rule.
“Those are both really terrific issues that we support,” said R.J. Ours, the Colorado government relations director for the Cancer Action Network, referring to the taxation and higher-minimum-age policies.
While he is not sure the total amount of spending or in-kind contributions that his organization will bring to bear on behalf of the local tax initiative, Ours said he is planning voter education and other basic, retail political efforts. These will include, at least, a mailer, to “let voters know we support this and that it’s good for kids,” he said. He is also traveling to Aspen early next week to meet with volunteers who plan to work on the cause.
Making smoking and tobacco use more expensive is a “scientifically proven deterrent” that keeps youth from taking up the habit, while giving adults more incentive to quit, Ours said.
The Cancer Action Network is coming off the defeat of a statewide tobacco tax increase proposal that went down in the 2016 election following $17 million in spending from the tobacco industry. It sees local initiatives like Aspen’s as critical to building support for future statewide policy efforts, Ours said. Aspen is breaking trail both on the tobacco-21 age restriction and implementing a local tax, and Ours hopes other communities will follow its lead. The town has a progressive history on public health legislation and was one of the first in the nation to pass an indoor smoking ban in the 1980s.
Since 1973, Colorado has had a state law on the books that requires any local jurisdiction that imposes its own tax or regulation on tobacco to forgo its share of revenue from the state’s 84-cent per-pack cigarette tax, which is distributed to cities and counties. According to Ours, the policy was enacted at the urging of a tobacco lobbyist in a time when it was permissible to smoke on the floor of the Colorado General Assembly’s legislative chambers.
Aspen receives about $75,000 per year from that state tax, money that will be gone once the new age limit takes effect but would be more than made up for if the local tax passes muster. According to the language of Ballot Issue 2B, those funds, which could increase local tax revenues up to $325,000 in the first year, “shall be used for the specific purposes of financing health and human services, tobacco-related health issues and addiction, and substance-abuse education and mitigation.”
“Big Tobacco has fought every effort to raise the tobacco tax statewide in Colorado,” Ours said in a press release issued Friday announcing the Cancer Action Network’s support for Aspen’s initiative. “The industry knows tobacco tax increases save lives by preventing new users from picking up the habit, but that puts a big dent in their profits. The Aspen City Council is outsmarting the industry by giving its citizens a chance to vote in favor of local tobacco control that will bring both life-savings and cost-savings to Aspen.”
The Cancer Action Network is the nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy affiliate of the American Cancer Society, and “supports evidence-based policy and legislative solutions designed to eliminate cancer as a major health problem,” the release says.
Tobacco stings not anticipated
Regardless of the outcome of November’s vote, 18- to 20-year-olds will no longer be able to purchase tobacco products in Aspen after the new year. The city’s five tobacco retailers will also have to obtain a license to sell the products, which will require an initial $500 fee. The retailers are the two gas stations, City Market, The Cigar Bar and a luggage store. Clark’s Market ceased selling cigarettes a few years ago, while the pro shop at the city-owned golf course will stop selling cigarettes beginning next year.
C.J. Oliver, the city’s environmental health director, said he has been gearing up to begin the licensing process, which will require the stores to provide basic information.
He does not anticipate any heavy-handed enforcement. The city has long taken a philosophical stance against undercover stings and will “definitely not” be sending in underage decoys to test whether local retailers are selling smokes to a 19-year-old, Oliver said.
If it becomes clear that a store is violating the policy, however, the city could take action by suspending its tobacco license, which would likely be subject to review by the city’s Local Licensing Authority, Oliver said. That body oversees liquor and marijuana licenses.
“I’m hoping we are not going to get outright defiance or opposition, but if that became an issue that is a bridge we’ll have to cross,” Oliver said.
The city will provide retailers with signage for doors and check-out counters, as well as education. Officials will make site visits to ensure the retailers understand the policy, Oliver said, likening the process to the environmental health department’s food-safety inspections.
“The challenge is that this is different from any other place in Colorado,” he said, and thus, local clerks may have to explain the policy to tourists. The city wants to make sure it provides that education in the licensing process and will stand ready to “problem-solve and be a resource for that,” Oliver said.
Tobacco 21 initiatives are now state law in Oregon, Maine, New Jersey and Hawaii.