Senate Votes to Stop Using Tobacco Prevention Dollars to License Smoke Shops

The Oregon Senate voted 16-13 to make smoke shops pay a user fee to cover the cost of their own licensure. Inspections and certification has been covered by diverting funds from tobacco prevention to ensure that cigar bars and other tobacco outlets are complying with their exception to the Oregon Indoor Clean Air Act.

It seems absurd on the surface. When the state passed its Clean Indoor Air Act in 2007, it gave an exception to cigar bars and other smoke shops that focus on tobacco to continue to light up in their businesses, so long as they were certified to sell primarily tobacco products and built a closed ventilation system to protect other businesses from hazardous secondhand smoke.

The money to certify the businesses and inspect them for compliance? Well, that was taken from the fund designed for tobacco prevention to deter kids from smoking.

Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, D-Portland, led the Senate on Monday to pass a bill that corrects that dubious funding equation, and requires smoke shops to pay for their own certification and inspections through a user fee.

“Senate Bill 416 corrects something that should have been corrected long ago,” said Steiner Hayward. “We decided we were going to use tobacco prevention dollars to pay for the certification program at these smoke shops. … The Oregon Health Authority foots the bill. Instead of spending [money] on programs to prevent tobacco, we use it on a program that encourages people to smoke tobacco.”

Despite its seeming position as a no-brainer, Senate Bill 416 was surprisingly close, perhaps indicating the tobacco lobby’s continued clout, particularly within the Republican Party, which accepted upwards of $80,000 in campaign donations designed to influence its voting record just in 2014, as well as another $40,000 in 2013.

All Republicans opposed SB 416 in the Senate, although moderate Republican Rep. Greg Smith of Heppner supported the bill in the Committee on Ways & Means. Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, has taken flak for his large campaign contributions from the tobacco industry, but he temporarily replaced Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, on Ways & Means on SB 416 as well as SB 478, the Toxic-Free Kids Act, to assure their passage despite her opposition.

However, on the Senate floor, Johnson was absent from the vote on SB 416, while Sen. Chris Edwards, D-Eugene, joined the Republicans in opposition.

Edwards told The Lund Report he had no problem correcting the funding mechanism for inspecting smoke shops, but did object to a new bureaucratic hurdle that requires Oregon’s 24 smoke shops to renew their license every five years, at a cost that he said would likely be about $4,000 per shop after administrative rules. The actual fee will be up to the discretion of the Oregon Health Authority.

He said the Oregon Health Authority, which regulates and inspects cigar bars, had been openly hostile to the small businesses in their inspections, even going so far to root through the trash looking for contraband wrappers from food and drink that are verboten at the shops under state law, and fining the shops accordingly.

The agency naturally has a built-in bias, given tobacco’s well-known link to cancer and its mission to promote public health.

“We shouldn’t pass laws to harass the owners with relicensing on top of annual inspections, which are more effective,” Edwards told The Lund Report. “They were opposed to the underlying law in the first place. The Health Authority will try to make it onerous on the smoke shops. They’ve been overzealous.”

An earlier bill, House Bill 2969, which was signed into law in May with just one legislative opponent, addressed some of Edwards’ concerns by allowing employees to have food and non-alcoholic beverages in the shops for their own personal use. He said that law was only  needed because health authority inspectors had been punitive and over-reached in their enforcement of rules against selling or offering food and drink to customers.

That bill amended the same Oregon statute, setting up a possible conflict amendment, since the new law was not incorporated into SB 416. If two bills are in conflict, it could have forced SB 416 to be amended, potentially dooming the bill with little time left this session. But Steiner Hayward confirmed with legislative counsel Mark Mayer that would not be the case with SB 416 and HB 2969 since they amend different parts of the statute governing smoke shops and could be blended together.

News source: