Push for Stricter Statewide Regulation of Tobacco Retailers Appear to Falter

Advocates are trying to bring a tobacco license registration back to SB 235, after that provision was gutted earlier. They hope to institute new regulations aimed at reducing youth tobacco use, with fees to pay for the program.

The Oregon Nurses Association and the Coalition of Local Health Officials have reintroduced an amendment to Senate Bill 235 that would put in place a statewide tobacco license registration, while still allowing counties and cities free rein to impose additional fees and regulations on tobacco vendors.

Their amendment, made over the objections of the business community, has almost no chance of passing the Senate in its current form and is most likely an attempt to kill the underlying bill rather than an honest attempt to pass a statewide tobacco licensure law.

The Senate Health Committee already killed a measure very similar to the SB 235 amendment unveiled Tuesday because without a compromise that protects businesses from a patchwork of local laws, it would be easily defeated on the Senate floor, with all Republicans and as many as five moderate Democrats opposed.

“I’m more than happy to support a statewide license. This amendment did not have the votes in the other committee,” said Shawn Miller, the lobbyist for the Northwest Grocery Association. “We were not supportive of a patchwork approach.”

The underlying bill, unpopular with public health advocates, would restore a carve-out to the Indoor Clean Air Act to statutorily allow for outdoor smoking porches and patios. It passed the Senate 26-2 earlier this month. If the House passes SB 235 with the amendment, the two chambers would be unlikely to reach an agreement, and the bill would die.

Bill Perry of the Oregon Restaurant and Lodging Association said his organization supports the smoking porch bill because it allows neighborhood bars to confine smoking to an outdoor portion of their property rather than forcing smokers to bleed out onto the sidewalk and disturb the neighbors.

The statute was inadvertently stripped from the Indoor Clean Air Act two years ago, putting the bars and restaurants at the mercy of the Oregon Health Authority’s administrative rulemaking. The state agency then sought to narrow the opportunities that bars and restaurants could offer these outdoor smoking areas, but it suspended enforcement of any more restrictive rules.

On tobacco licensure, neither side has appeared willing to compromise this session, effectively leaving youth at risk in counties that do not want to implement their own tobacco licensure programs, and putting businesses at risk to a tangle of laws that vary by county and municipality.

Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, D-Portland, has supported a statewide tobacco license program because she believes the state would better prevent sales to minors if it were able to pull a vendor’s right to sell tobacco or e-cigarettes for repeatedly violating the law on youth sales.

In 2013, an undercover investigation reported 22.5 percent of retailers were willing to sell to a minor, putting Oregon at risk of losing federal substance abuse prevention funding.

Last year, Steiner Hayward painstakingly crafted a compromise that would have allowed Multnomah County to keep its tobacco retailer program, but otherwise set one statewide licensure law that forbade local governments from implementing a patchwork of regulations. Her bill was sacrificed in a back-room deal to persuade Senate Republicans to quit their stalling tactics and finish the 2016 session.

The SB 235 amendment, which restores the introduced bill, goes back on that agreement and doesn’t allow for any statewide pre-emption -- the very reason that the Northwest Grocery Association supported Steiner Hayward’s 2016 bill.

Tobacco retailers introduced their own bill, Senate Bill 998, which created only a minimal statewide registration through the Department of Revenue, and which would not charge retailers enough to pay for the program. It also only allowed Multnomah County to keep its existing law.

In response, the Senate Health Committee chose to not move either SB 998 or the original SB 235, instead opting to replace the original SB 235 with the smoking patio bill, while giving up on a statewide tobacco licensure program.

Aside from the 2016 Steiner Hayward compromise, Multnomah County and lobbyists for local governments have repeatedly tried to kill a statewide tobacco license program because it would interfere with counties and cities’ ability to set up their own fees and regulations.

In 2015, Sen. Mark Hass, D-Beaverton, negotiated between tobacco retailers and public health advocates for months, but was forced to spike the bill after public health advocates walked away from their agreement.

Reach Chris Gray at [email protected].

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