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Colorado communities do what state lawmakers wouldn’t: Raise taxes on cigarettes, vaping products

The initiatives, mostly in mountain communities, follow a new state law that allows them to license and tax cigarette sales without penalty

The cigarette and vaping display at a convenience store in Denver's Capitol Hill neighborhood on April 30, 2019. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)
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A cluster of health-conscious communities, mostly in the Colorado mountains, passed measures Tuesday that took aim at the youth vaping epidemic. 

Eight cities and counties asked voters to increase taxes on tobacco, including electronic cigarettes and vaping products. And the proposed taxes were hefty — $3 to $4 per pack of cigarettes and 40% on vaping supplies.

Voters in Pitkin, Eagle and Summit counties, as well as in the cities of Crested Butte, Glenwood Springs, New Castle, Vail and Boulder appeared to easily pass the ballot measures, according to unofficial results.

The measures follow a change in state law this year that removed a tax rebate penalty for communities that regulated and taxed cigarettes, a throwback to the 1970s, when tobacco companies heavily lobbied lawmakers. Before the new law, towns weren’t allowed to license cigarette sales unless they were willing to forfeit their share of the state sales on cigarettes — a 27% rate of return.

The change is what made the slate of ballot questions voters decided on Tuesday possible.

Meanwhile, the cities and counties appear to have done what Colorado lawmakers this year did not. The state legislature rejected a proposal to create the state’s first tax on vaping products and increase cigarette taxes by asking voters to sign off on a statewide, universal nicotine tax of 62%.

The effort, championed by Gov. Jared Polis, was voted down in the state Senate after the tobacco industry hired high-dollar lobbyists to stop it and launched a social media campaign to ensure its loss. Polis’ spokesman recently said that he still believes in the universal nicotine tax and believes that it would reduce vaping abuse.

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis pushed for a universal nicotine tax in Colorado this year, but the proposal was rejected in the state Senate. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

The elections Tuesday also follow widespread reports of a lung disease linked to vaping.

More than 30 deaths have been reported across the country, and Colorado health authorities are investigating 11 cases of the illness. 

Colorado has the highest rate of vaping teenagers in the nation at 27%, double the national average, according to the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey. Rates are the worst in mountain communities, which is part of the reason so many mountain towns had vaping-related measures on the ballot Tuesday.

“They don’t want to be known for leading the nation and not doing anything,” said Jodi Radke, regional director of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. “They don’t want to sit on the sidelines and watch kids get addicted to these products. I’m hoping we will have a domino effect.”

The new state law not only allowed communities to tax cigarettes without penalty, it gave them broader powers to regulate tobacco and nicotine products. The legislation gave counties and unincorporated areas the authority to raise the legal age for sale of nicotine products to 21 and require stores to purchase licenses in order to sell cigarettes or vape products. 

Already in 2019, 19 city councils or county boards have enacted measures to raise the legal age to buy vaping products to 21, ban flavored vaping juices or create local licensing requirements. And several more towns are considering similar measures in the coming weeks. 

“What we are seeing is a reflection of municipalities no longer being penalized and having to forfeit state revenues,” Radke said. “In addition, there is a recognition that there is a crisis, an epidemic, and Colorado is one of the leading states in the nation for youth vaping.”

Jake Williams, executive director of Healthier Colorado, urged the legislature to “follow the lead of communities” and raise the legal age of sale to 21, as well as ban the sale of flavored vape juice that appeals to youth.

“We saw voters across Colorado stand up for the health of their communities and against the industry intent on hooking yet another generation on nicotine products,” he said in an emailed statement.

Here were the measures on the 2019 ballot on Election Day:

  • Glenwood Springs: $4-per-pack tax on cigarettes and a 40% tax on other tobacco products, including e-cigarettes. 
  • Crested Butte: $3-per-pack tax on cigarettes and a 40% tax on other products, including vape products
  • New Castle: $3.20-per-pack tax on cigarettes and a 40% tax on other products, including e-cigarettes
  • Vail: $3-per-pack tax on cigarettes and a 40% tax on e-cigarettes and other tobacco products
  • Boulder: 40% tax on vaping products
  • Pitkin County: $3.20-per-pack tax on cigarettes and a 40% tax tax on other tobacco products, including e-cigarettes.
  • Summit County: $4-per-pack tax on cigarettes and a 40% tax on vaping and other tobacco products
  • Eagle County: $4-per-pack tax on cigarettes and a 40% tax on other tobacco products, including vaping and e-cigarettes. 

The communities pledged to spend the increased taxes on health initiatives.

Staff writer Jesse Paul contributed to this report.

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