Monnes Anderson Push to License Tobacco Retailers off to Rocky Start

Senate Bill 235 backs away from a compromise that public health officials and business owners agreed upon in 2016, and the two sides may have to come together again to win a statewide licensing program that could pass the Senate, protecting minors from tobacco while easing business concerns about a patchwork of city, state and county regulations.

The renewed push to require tobacco and nicotine sales to have a state retail license got off to a shaky start this week, with the hard-fought bipartisan compromise achieved in previous sessions replaced by a renewed political divide between the business community and state and county public health officials.

Senate Democrats are trying once again to require anyone who sells tobacco products or e-cigarettes in Oregon to be licensed with the state, a policy they believe will cut down on sales to minors and give the state similar authority as it now has over alcohol and marijuana.

Senate Bill 235 would authorize the Department of Revenue to establish a statewide retail license and collect fees for the license and any additional fees tacked on by county or city governments, as well as the Oregon Health Authority, which would continue state-led sting and educational  programs to prevent children from buying cigarettes.

Sen. Laurie Monnes Anderson, D-Gresham, allowed health officials to speak on Senate Bill 235 on Tuesday while the grocers, small tobacco shop, e-cigarette business people and other skeptics of the legislation were largely forced to come back on Thursday, an inconvenience that drew criticism from Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend.

The Democrats have twice failed to overcome opposition to a licensing program and will need broad support from members of the business community, in particular the Northwest Grocery Association, to pass the bill on the third try.

“As currently assembled, there’s no way I could support it,” Sen. Jeff Kruse, R-Roseburg, told The Lund Report. “I know it’s frustrating. We were close to having something everyone could live with.”

It’s unclear if the Democrats will have the votes. Their majority has been reduced by the tragic loss of Sen. Alan Bates, an osteopathic physician, although two senators who had been sympathetic to small businesses that sell tobacco and e-cigarettes -- Sen. Chip Shields, D-Portland, and Sen. Chris Edwards, D-Eugene -- have retired.

And despite a work group organized by the Oregon Health Authority and conducted with the input of county public health officials, SB 235 did not appear ready for prime time -- with Sen. Lee Beyer, D-Springfield, arguing that the bill needed to be amended, at minimum, so that the licenses apply to the premises of sales and not to individuals or companies at-large.

“We may be running into the same problems we had,” said Monnes Anderson, who said she would tally support from her caucus members for the underlying bill and possible amendments that are more acceptable to the business community. “I really would like to see some amendments. I’m not ready to move the bill.”

Earlier iterations of a tobacco license bill largely pre-empted additional local restrictions on tobacco sales -- a key compromise with the business community members, which would support a statewide licensing program if they didn’t have to deal with a patchwork of fees and regulations.

Two of the state’s largest county governments, alarmed at the lax state oversight of tobacco sales, have moved ahead without a state licensing program, putting in place separate programs in Multnomah and Lane counties.

Those counties are dead-set on their ability to keep their own licensing, enforcement and education programs, while also maintaining the right for other counties to impose additional requirements -- a sticking point that derailed legislation in 2015 but was dropped in 2016. Last year, the Republicans killed the bill in a parliamentary procedure, despite supporting it on the merits.

“We do not oppose a statewide retail licensure,” said J.L. Wilson, the lobbyist for 7/11 convenience stores, who said franchisees can lose their store currently if they are caught twice selling to minors. “(But) Now we’re in a position of being whipsawed between local government and state agencies. .. We may be better off with a patchwork of local regulations even though that’s not the optimum environment.”

But Morgan Cowling, the liaison for the Coalition of Local Health Officials, said the lack of state or county license programs had created an untenable environment, where in one year, a federal monitoring program showed more than 20 percent of underage teenagers were able to buy tobacco.

“There’s been quite a lot of work done to reduce those rates,” Cowling said -- work that should be built upon, not reversed.

Chris can be reached at [email protected].

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