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Eagle County looks to increase tobacco taxes
November ballot measures could generate $4.5 million in 2020
On Nov. 5, local voters will be asked whether or not new taxes on tobacco products should be approved. Youth vaping will also be part of a ballot question this fall. - photo by Katie Hankinson

It’s no secret that vaping and smoking are public health hazards. Smoking tobacco, as we all know, has been directly linked to lung cancer, and the headlines these days are splashed with stories about “popcorn lung” and people dying from their use of e-cigarettes or other vaporizers, which produce a vapor to be inhaled, rather than smoke, from tobacco or other substances. 

Once marketed as a healthier alternative to smoking, vaping is proving itself to be just the opposite while being every bit as effective at getting the public addicted to nicotine. Despite this, vaping among teens and young adults has increased so much in recent years that the FDA and Surgeon General declared it an epidemic in 2018.

If that’s the case, Colorado may be the epicenter. The number of high school students who vaped in the last 30 days in Colorado is nearly double the national average (26.2 percent vs. 13.2 percent, according to a 2017 Centers for Disease Control study). Scarier still, the rates in the Roaring Fork and Eagle valleys are higher than the state as a whole, according to a fact sheet circulated by Eagle County. 

On Election Day, Nov. 5, voters in Eagle, Pitkin and Summit counties will have a chance to do something about the expanding problem of youth vaping in the form of ballot questions that will ask them to approve new taxes on tobacco products. 

Recently, the Eagle Board of County Commissioners agreed on a ballot question that would raise the minimum age to purchase tobacco products to 21.

All three counties are asking for a 40 percent tax on all non-cigarette tobacco products and a $4 tax on each pack of cigarettes. The taxes would start in 2020, although Pitkin County’s cigarette tax would start at $3.20 and increase by 10 cents a year until it reaches $4.

These are measures that local public health experts would agree are good steps to help curb tobacco use among youths, and it would be easy to assume that they were initiated by concerned parents, but much of the push, as well as the mostly successful efforts to raise the tobacco purchase age to 21, has come from teens themselves.

“Originally, both the resolution for the age and the tax came to light by presentations that were happening around our county by some local high school students,” said Kris Widlak, director of communications for Eagle County. “They started going to every town and to the county and saying, ‘Kids in our school are vaping. They can’t stop. They’re addicted. It’s affecting their athletics. It’s affecting their lives.’ They were the champions for it.”

Price matters

Studies have shown that a 10 percent increase in the price of cigarettes equates to a 3-to-5 percent drop in adult use and a 6-to-7 percent drop in youth use. It’s believed a similar pattern would hold true for e-cigarettes. So, while the taxes will generate revenue, their ultimate goal is to more or less price kids out of the market by making tobacco products prohibitively expensive.

About that revenue, though: Eagle County estimates that the tax will bring in about $4.5 million in the first year. If that number seems high, it might be. According to Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR), any municipality seeking to raise taxes has to give a number value for how much taxes will be raised. If the tax generates more money than estimated, the municipality has to refund the excess or ask to keep it through a ballot measure.

That’s the case in Aspen, where a $3 per pack cigarette tax (40 percent for other tobacco) netted $436,000 in 2018, well above the city’s $325,000 estimate. Aspen will be asking voters if it can keep the money on this November’s ballot. In Basalt, a $2.40 percent tax was suspended in March for the rest of 2019 when it became clear the town would make much more than the $29,000 it estimated it would.

Erring on the side of caution, Eagle County came in with a high estimate in the hopes of avoiding TABOR-related issues in the future, but the county doesn’t think it’s far off the mark.

“We really wanted to be honest with voters,” said Widlak. “It was based on the fact that Basalt and Aspen ended up collecting more than they expected in the first year.” 

The money will be earmarked for public health programs – especially those aimed at reducing teen vaping – enforcement of the 21-and-over tobacco age law, collecting the taxes, substance abuse and addiction services and “other public health programs and education, without limitations.” Of course, should the law have its intended effect of driving down tobacco use rates, tax collections will decrease, but that’s a situation Eagle County is actually hoping for.

“Our best-case scenario would be that revenue goes down every year,” said Widlak. “That means we’ve done what we set out to do.”

The ballot measures might seem like no-brainers, and in Eagle County they received support from 76.5 percent of respondents in a recent community survey. But that doesn’t mean that all will be smooth sailing. Within Eagle County, Vail and Minturn are still considering ballots to raise the legal tobacco age to 21, as Avon and Basalt have, but last month the town of Eagle nixed a resolution to do the same, meaning the age limit there will stay 18.

As far as taxes go, while the three counties and many towns will soon have their own tax rates that apply only within their boundaries, Garfield County will not be joining them in asking for some sort variation of the tax. Earlier this month, the county commissioners declined to put such a measure on the November ballot.

It’s a hodgepodge that has arisen, in part, from the state’s failure to pass a cigarette and nicotine tax in May and a law signed by Governor Jared Polis in March that authorizes counties and municipalities to impose special sales taxes on tobacco. 

The result is that, for the time being, the state will continue to have different taxes and age limits for every town, leading to jurisdiction shopping, wherein tobacco users go to where they can get products the most easily and inexpensively. It’ll be an unavoidable consequence of the current regulations, but each municipality can’t worry too much about that.

“We very firmly believe that everyone has to do what they think is best for their constituents, and this is what our board of commissioners thinks is best for our constituents,” said Widlak. “There is general and widespread understanding that this is an important public health issue.”