Umatilla County Public Health wants to institute a tobacco retailer license in Pendleton, but the city council isn’t sold yet.
Mariah Hinds, the county’s tobacco prevention and education coordinator, pitched the council on the concept at a meeting Tuesday.
She said youth in Umatilla County consume above average amounts of tobacco while buying it from places that are lax in following state law.
According to Oregon Health Authority Data, the county’s 11th grade smoking rate is 40 percent higher than the state average. Other methods of tobacco consumption like chewing tobacco, cigars, cigarellos, or e-cigarettes were either double or triple the state average.
Hinds said one in three Umatilla County retailers sold tobacco to an underage decoy during Federal Drug Administration inspections, according to 2015 data. One in five failed multiple times and some as many as three times.
While selling cigarettes to minors under 21 is illegal, Hinds said offending retailers aren’t penalized, although the clerk who sells them can be fined.
She said a local license would help keep retailers accountable, curb tobacco sales and underage use and give local authorities a better idea of where tobacco is being sold.
Hinds presented data that show in the California communities where a tobacco retail license was introduced, youth sales decreased by an average of 68 percent.
Tobacco licenses have already been introduced to a handful of Oregon cities including Portland, Salem, Corvallis, Klamath Falls, Veneta and Ashland.
Hinds said there are about 80 tobacco retailers in Umatilla County, although several council members thought it was much higher.
Under the county’s proposal, a retailer would pay a set fee, currently $250 to $350 per year, which would go toward the county’s administrative costs.
Umatilla County Environmental Health, which already handles restaurant inspections, would handle enforcement. If a store was caught selling tobacco to minors, they would be fined $500 for the first offense and $1,000 for subsequent violations in addition to other penalties like license suspension and revocation.
Hinds said the council could also consider other laws like prohibiting tobacco products from being sold within 1,000 feet of a school or another tobacco seller.
The council greeted Hinds’ presentation with skepticism.
Councilor Dale Primmer said implementing a license for tobacco would spur criticism from the community that the city was singling out tobacco retailers for local enforcement while leaving marijuana and alcohol enforcement to state agencies.
With Pendleton already charging between $100 and $1,000 per year for business licenses, Councilor Becky Marks worried that a new tobacco license would overburden businesses.
“You are going to crush economic development in the city of Pendleton,” she said.
Hinds responded that unlike marijuana and alcohol, there is no state or federal agency that enforces tobacco sales laws against retailers.
She added that some retailers, like the Circle K at 335 S.E. Court Ave., sell “thousands of dollars” worth of tobacco products per week.
The county health department did a survey of 54 tobacco retailer and found a narrow majority favored the license.
Mayor John Turner said he was concerned that Pendleton would become a “nanny state” if it implemented some of the county’s proposals.
“I am concerned that in our quest to maybe keep that one kid from buying that one pack of cigarettes, you would develop some overly onerous restrictions on free enterprise,” he said.
In other instances where the council considered introducing a significant tax, Turner said the council often referred the issue to voters.
Turner said the proposal was “not ready for primetime” and suggested Hinds meet with other cities about tobacco licensing, refine her proposal and then return to the council.
Contact Antonio Sierra at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-966-0836.