County continues tobacco licensing talks

While hosting public hearings on the prospect of initiating a license structure for tobacco retailers, the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners also discussed increasing the minimum age to purchase tobacco from 18 to 21.

The board first discussed the concept of retail licensing in late September, with reducing cigarette sales to minors the dominant concern. In Multnomah County, the rate of sale to minors is nearly 32 percent.

Board members had hoped the Oregon Legislature would address the issue.

“Unfortunately, it did not happen, and that is why I believe it is incumbent upon us to do something locally,” board Chair Deboarah Kafoury said in September. “I believe an ordinance we put together will be something the state can and will pick up. This is something that is a big step for our community.”

Oregon is one the few states that does not require retailers to be licensed to sell tobacco products, including cigarettes and chewing tobacco.

To gain public feedback, the commissioners held two public hearings on Tuesday, Oct. 20, one in Portland and one in Gresham.

At the Portland hearing, Sen. Laurie Monnes Anderson, D-Gresham, explained why the licensing did not see approval during the state’s session.

“The issue (is) preemption,” Monnes Anderson said, meaning if the state takes action down the road, it would overrule what the county implemented. “A number of legislators feel preemption at the state level should be required. We had a standoff basically with the stakeholders and opponents to the bill.

“I am very passionate about wanting to (prevent) youth from using tobacco,” she added. “Licensing is also paramount so we can have a good enforcement structure.”

Licensing was considered with a fee somewhere between $350 and $600. Support from the plan emerged from the hearing testimony.

“Oregon is one of only a handful of states that does not have tobacco retail licensing,” noted Charles Tauman, Tobacco Free Coalition of Oregon president. “And it has the largest rate of sales.”

Retail shops should be able to easily pay a licensing fee around $250 to $350, as shops profit that much per day in tobacco sales, he added.

Tia Henderson, research manager for Upstream Public Health, said when they discussed the issue with retailers, three out of four said they would raise their costs to cover the fee. Henderson said this is a positive because youths are typically sensitive to costs. If tobacco products become more expensive, youths will be less likely to purchase them.

Ben Hoffman, a doctor at Doernbecher Children’s Hospital in Portland, argued for the increased legal tobacco purchase age. Hoffman said amid high schoolers, there will always be 18-year-old students who can purchase cigarettes or other tobacco products.

“At 21, social circles shift to bars,” he said. “If we don’t have tobacco in cohorts under 21, it’s much less likely kids will be able to get it under 21. We know this works because when we raised the legal age to 21, drinking by high school seniors decreased by 50 percent. As we think about developing these common sense policies ... we need to make sure the interests of kids is kept in mind.”

A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found three out of four adults favor increasing the minimum age to 21, but currently Hawaii is the only state with the increased purchase age.

During the hearings, Plaid Pantry representatives were the only speakers to oppose county regulations.

“We think that such policies need to be done at a state level,” said Jonathan Polonsky, chief operating officer. “There must be a uniform set of rules and regulations, not a patchwork of different regulations county by county or city by city.”

The commissioners said no decision has been made yet, and the board will continue discussing the issue throughout the county. The next proposals are scheduled during City Council meetings in Fairview on Wednesday, Nov. 4, and Wood Village on Monday, Nov. 9.

If approved, planning would begin in February with the program launching as early as July 2016.

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