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Aspen aims to be first in state to raise tobacco age

Kim Levin is the Pitkin County Medical officer. For years now, she’s been working to pull off something no one else in the state has done: Increasing the buying age for tobacco from 18 to 21.

Monday night, the Aspen City Council will vote on the initiative, which they hope will set the standard for a statewide movement.


Earlier this spring, Levin presented council with data showing that 90 percent of smokers began the habit as adolescents, and that the majority of teenagers get cigarettes from 18 to 21 year old peers.


In theory, Aspen could pass a new law right now that increases the tobacco sales age to 21. But, it wouldn't have a lot of teeth to it. Because there’s something unique about Colorado: Statewide, there is no license required to sell cigarettes.


There are certainly rules for shops that sell tobacco, but the consequences for breaking those rules is a fine, which the tobacco industry is happy to pay for.


“What fines do is pretty much nothing,” said Eric Brodell, the Western Region Director for Preventing Tobacco Addiction Foundation. “Business owners will contact the tobacco company, say ‘Hey, we got a fine! Will you help us pay it?’ That is the way fines go most of the time if they are a well connected store.”


To get around big tobacco money, a town in Colorado can’t just add rules. Instead the strategy is to create a tobacco retail licence (TRL.) And part of that license agreement can be that all buyers must be over 21. Then, the consequence for breaking rules would be a way bigger deal. It’s not just coughing up a fee, it’s the ability to sell your products.


Creating a TRL goes against state law, but it’s allowed, at a cost. Currently, in exchange for communities not regulating cigarettes sales, the state kicks back some of the tax collected. But, if a community does start their own licensing system, that money goes away.


“For Aspen, we figure that’s about $75,000,” said Brodell.  


In a work session this spring, the five councilmembers had no problem with that cost. Ann Mullins said, with the amount of money the city currently spends to support health services, the program could pay for itself.


“So you could look at this as somewhat of a trade off on that. This is the same contribution, in fact it’s preventing the problems that we are trying to solve,” said Mullins. “There may not be a lot of 18-year-olds in the hospital with lung cancer, but they’ll be back at 40 with lung cancer so I do support this and, I do support doing it 100 percent.”


There are also other ways of making up for the lost Tobacco revenue. Councilmember Adam Frisch, who declared himself the tobacco industry’s greatest foe, sees an even bigger end goal to a city-based licensing system,


“I still want to make a plug that for this to be most effective we are going to have to get involved in some type of city tax,” Frisch said on first reading of the ordinance. “Study after study that I've seen shows that the price is the biggest deterrent for people to pick up smoking, especially at a younger age”


Since this ordinance has been proposed, Frisch has received correspondence from national lobbying organizations against tobacco regulation. The council has been accused of nanny-state style government overreach, harming small business, and even increasing health risks by including vaping systems called e cigarettes in the ordinance. Vaping is a booming industry, users inhale water vapor instead of smoke but they still deliver nicotine.


Matt Pavia is the proprietor of One Love Smoke Shop and Oxygen bar, a small shop, up from Cooper Avenue in downtown Aspen. He doesn’t sell tobacco but he does sell vaping paraphernalia - which he said helps smokers quit. He thinks the measure will hurt the second tier local shops like his.


“It will simply just take tax dollars out of Aspen, which is fine because we have so much they don't mind it, but at the same time it might hurt these little nook and cranny places. I mean, there's not a lot of places like this left,” said Pavia.


There are six businesses in town that would need tobacco licensing if the ordinance passes Monday. Outside of city limits, roughly 10 minutes away, there are two shops that sell cigarettes and wouldn't need to comply with the age restriction. Plus you can get e-cigarettes online easily.


Pitkin County Health Officer Kim Levin said she started this measure in Aspen knowing she’d have support, but that’s not her end game.


“I think that it’s going to hopefully have a ripple effect and influence other communities to do the same. And eventually the state of Colorado and that’s where we are hoping this all goes,” said Levin.


The public hearing on the Tobacco 21 ordinance is tonight at Aspen City Hall.


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