A Clearer Atmosphere: Pitkin County Officials Unanimously Back Stricter Tobacco Rules

Pitkin County commissioners have informally agreed to move ahead with an ordinance that would raise the minimum age for tobacco purchases to 21 and ban the sale of all flavored nicotine products.

The general agreement on those two items during a work session on Tuesday follows a previous formal decision to let voters on Nov. 5 decide the question of a tax on all tobacco products sold in unincorporated Pitkin County. The proposed ballot measure seeks to impose a $3.20 levy on each pack of cigarettes and a 40 percent local tax on the retail price of all other tobacco and nicotine products starting Jan. 1. The per-pack cigarette tax would escalate by 10 cents a year until the tax reaches $4.

All three moves are part of the county public health department’s new initiative, a tobacco-control policy primarily aimed at protecting the health of Aspen-area high school students, who are said to be prolific users of vaping devices, much like their peers across the state. In a presentation to commissioners, Risa Turetsky, the county’s health promotion administrator, cited a 2017 survey indicating that 53 percent of high school students from Aspen to Parachute had tried vaping. In addition, Colorado ranks first in the nation in the category of youth vaping.

In addition, Turetsky said, the rates relating to the use of traditional tobacco products such as cigarettes and chewing tobacco by Aspen High School students is higher than the state average among that peer group. “Nicotine exposure during childhood and adolescence actually rewires brain development, predisposing young people to further addiction and disrupting learning, memory development and attention for the short and long term,” a staff memo to commissioners says.

Commissioner Greg Poschman asked whether the data on local youths and tobacco use was reliable. The father of two teenagers said it’s hard to understand the surveys because he doesn’t see local youths vaping around town. He wondered aloud if the results were skewed in some way.

Turetsky said that when she meets with local students in a group setting, “they say all their friends are vaping.” The school bathrooms are overloaded with vaping activity, the students relayed to her.

She told Poschman that the local youth risk behavior survey did not have a small sample size. The assessment seems to be consistent with the results of identical surveys conducted elsewhere in the state and nation, public health officials have previously stated.

Turetsky said because the use of tobacco, particularly flavored vaping products, has become so popular with local youths, she planned to discuss the issue with parents on Tuesday evening at Aspen High School. It’s important for parents and youths to be educated on the different types of nicotine products that are emerging, especially now that medical professionals have linked vaping, once considered a less-harmful alternative to traditional smoking, to serious health effects. The Centers for Disease Control is studying flavored tobacco products used in vaping devices to identify the components that are toxic, she said.

The Aspen and Roaring Fork school districts have been proactive in attempting to provide more education on the subject, she said. “I feel like we’re all being reactive now, because we were behind [the issue],” Turetsky said.

In the schools, it’s “considered cool” to vape or at least carry vaping devices “whether you do it or not,” she said. 

During the 2019 legislative session, the Colorado General Assembly passed House Bill 1033, which gives local governments more authority to regulate tobacco. It also removes a penalty to local governments — the loss of the share of the state tax on tobacco — for enacting local policies relating to local measures, such as raising the minimum age of purchase.

“However, if there is a local tax, the county will no longer collect a shareback of the state tax,” Turetsky’s presentation noted.

The municipalities of Aspen, Snowmass Village and Basalt have raised the minimum age of purchase from 18 to 21, she said, and such a move by Pitkin County for its unincorporated areas would make the policy uniform countywide.

Turetsky said the county’s ordinance would not ban all vaping products and e-cigarettes; only the flavored items that “appeal to kids” would be subject to the restriction. There are adults who prefer vaping traditional tobacco flavors in lieu of the more harmful practice of smoking traditional cigarettes, cigars and the like.

She said kids aren’t necessarily attracted to the traditional tobacco flavor. They want the variety of flavors that tobacco companies have developed and marketed in recent years as a way of luring youths into the habit of smoking. The flavors are often connected with common fruits, like strawberries, but even include oddities like “crème brulee.”

In response to questions about what can and cannot be banned, County Attorney John Ely told commissioners that any item containing nicotine or tobacco can be restricted. From a public health perspective, Turetsky said she would choose a complete ban on traditional cigarettes as they are “by far the most harmful” tobacco product on the market.

Another aspect of the new county tobacco policy will involve enhanced enforcement. Commissioners agreed that compliance checks will be necessary to ensure that retailers aren’t selling to youths under 21 and that violators should be required to present evidence-based information on the health dangers associated with smoking to their employees.

More details about the restrictions, including the specific types of flavored products that would be banned, are expected to emerge when the ordinance comes up for first reading. A date for that public hearing has not been set.