Garfield County raises tobacco purchasing age

A smoker lights up.
Kyle Mills / Post Independent

Garfield County joined most of the region in raising the tobacco purchasing age to 21, but commissioners are still wary of regulating flavored tobacco products.

In a split vote, Garfield County commissioners approved raising the tobacco purchasing age to 21 on Monday, and also asked state lawmakers to clarify the law about tobacco licensing.

With Monday’s resolution raising the purchasing age, “we’re just asking our vendors with tobacco products to follow our resolution,” Commissioner Tom Jankovsky said at the meeting.

The resolution applies to nine stores, from Parachute to Glenwood to Carbondale, located in unincorporated sections of the county.

‘New horizon’ in nicotine regulation

2019 has seen a number of towns and counties in Colorado pass stricter rules and higher taxes on nicotine products, all made possible by a bill Gov. Jared Polis signed in March that grants local governments new authority on tobacco issues.

But the bill is ambiguous when it comes to statutory counties’ authority to regulate flavored tobacco and license retailers, according to Garfield County staff.

“There’s still some ambiguity about what counties can license and enforce,” county attorney Tari Williams told the commissioners.

Pitkin County has passed the strictest tobacco and vaping policies in the state so far, by including the slate of new tobacco policies — the tax, raising the purchasing age, and banning flavored nicotine, including menthol cigarettes and chewing tobacco.

Eagle and Summit counties have raised the purchasing age to 21 and proposed tobacco taxes that voters approved Nov. 5.

Aspen, Basalt, Glenwood Springs and New Castle have approved up to $4 taxes on a pack of cigarettes, and Carbondale expects to put a similar tax before voters in April.

The Garfield County commissioners approved a letter requesting state lawmakers pass statewide tobacco policies, or clarify the 2019 legislation.

In the letter, commissioners said they “are very concerned with the use of tobacco products by the youth of our community and … we strongly believe this could be best addressed at the state level. However, if it appears that a statewide regulatory system seems unlikely, we ask that some clarification language to (the bill) be adopted so that we may feel more able to create local regulations.”

Gini Pingenot, who helped draft the 2019 legislation with Colorado Counties, Inc., said she understands the caution, given how new the licensing authority is.

“This is a brand new horizon. I do appreciate the thoughtfulness of jumping into the licensing piece,” Pingenot said.

When the bill was being drafted, regulating flavors was not part of the discussion, Pingenot said.

Pingenot expects lawmakers to consider a state licensing structure for all tobacco and e-cigarette vendors in 2020.

‘A right 18-year-olds have’

The county’s minimum age resolution notes that Colorado youth have the highest rate of teen vaping. The resolution also states that 96 percent of smokers begin before the age of 21, and that nicotine users frequently shift transition from experimentation to addiction between the ages of 18 and 21.

Board chairman John Martin entered the dissenting vote on raising the purchasing age even though he recognizes the health risks of smoking.

Martin considers purchasing tobacco to be a decision legal adults should be able to make themselves.

If an 18-year-old can volunteer for the military, he or she should be able to purchase tobacco, Martin said.

“It’s just a right 18-year-olds have, along with everything else piled on them,” Martin said.

Martin added that people shouldn’t smoke, but said his philosophical position is that the government shouldn’t protect people from themselves when it comes to tobacco.

“You need to take responsibility and make those choices, and also understand what the consequences might be,” Martin said.

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