Council hears tobacco license pitch from county

A wall of tobacco products on display in Pendleton.

Umatilla County Public Health has its first city council on board with a program to license tobacco retailers.

The Pilot Rock City Council at its Feb. 19 meeting voted 5-1 to support requiring that stores and businesses obtain a license from the county to sell tobacco products. Pilot Rock Mayor Virginia Carnes and Mariah Hinds, the county health department’s tobacco prevention coordinator, said the program is about protecting youth from the harmful effects of tobacco.

The county began developing the program in 2016 and in early 2018 pitched it to the Pendleton City Council, which was skeptical about placing a burden on businesses.

Hinds said the program would not be about making a business jump through a bunch of hoops to sell tobacco but would focus on making sure businesses comply with the law and not sell to minors. The non-compliance rate for tobacco sellers in the county in 2015-16 was 22 percent, she said, and increased to 24 percent for 2017-18.

“So illegal sales are happening in our county,” Hinds said, and the health department also is concerned with the trend of electronic cigarettes. According to the Oregon Health Authority, e-cigarette use in 2017 was higher among 11th graders in Eastern Oregon than cigarette smoking. The American Lung Association reports e-cigarettes contain and produce harmful chemicals, aside from tobacco and nicotine.

Hinds explained the licensing program would run through the county’s environmental health division, which licenses and inspects restaurants, pools and septic systems. The cost of the license would pay for the program, so no general fund money would prop it up. The county also would handle all the inspections and ensure compliance, and not ask local law enforcement to handle that. The program partly would be for retailer education, she said, to make sure they comply with laws about selling tobacco, and also to reduce teen access to tobacco.

Hinds said studies show 90 percent of smokers start when they are under 18 and nearly 100 percent under 26. Restricting teen access to tobacco products means reducing tobacco-related health problems, diseases and deaths.

“That’s our end goal,” she said.

Carnes said she heard from one business in her town that was not keen on the council’s move, and she understands why councilor Raymond Doherty voted against it. No one wants new taxes, she said, and the fees that would go to support the program are a tax.

“It’s a tax, but one that can help the kids,” she said, and the council’s vote is for the future residents of Pilot Rock.

Hinds and company make their next presentation on March 19 to the Stanfield City Council, and are working to line up more to gain wider community buy-in. Pendleton Mayor John Turner said last year that he was opposed to “overly onerous restrictions on free enterprise.” Hinds said the program would not be about curtailing free enterprise but about addressing a public health problem and holding retailers accountable for breaking the law.

“This is something we can do locally for our community,” she said.

Hinds also said anyone with questions about the tobacco retailer license can call her at the Umatilla County Public Health Department, 541-278-5432.

This story was updated to correct information about the starting age of smokers.

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