Board to consider licensing tobacco and nicotine retailers to reduce teen use

September 25, 2015

The Office of Government Relations' Rhys Scholes describes the landscape of tobacco license systems across the country.

In an effort to reduce teens access to cigarettes and e-cigarettes, communities from New York to California license businesses that sell these products.

Now, the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners is considering a similar strategy after sting operations found high percentages of illegal sales to teen decoys.

More than one in four teens were able to buy tobacco in Portland, Troutdale, Wood Village and Fairview during 2015 federal sting, county staff told the board at a briefing on Sept. 24. Gresham businesses fared slightly better, with 16 percent. In 2014, a state sting found one in three teen decoys successfully bought tobacco or nicotine here.

“Multnomah County has done very poorly,’’  said Rhys Scholes, a policy manager.

That’s a concern because tobacco and nicotine have addictive qualities that pose particular risk to growing brains. And, the vast majority of smokers say they started using before age 18. In addition to education and Clean Air policies -- which Multnomah County already passed - many communities use licensing to reduce access.

A license to support an education and enforcement program in Multnomah County would range from $350 to $600, by early estimates.

On Thursday at a briefing before commissioners, Scholes described a landscape of license systems ranging from a simple registration fee of $3 in tiny Geneva Alabama to a $1,550 license fee in Oakland, Calif.

Ingham County, Michigan, home of Michigan State University, has a $335 license. Scholes said 20 years ago, 73 percent of businesses in Ingham County Michigan illegally sold to minors. Within two years of adopting licensing, that dropped to less than 20 percent and is now under 10 percent. “It looks like paying attention makes a difference,’’ Scholes said.

Olmsted County, Minn., home of the Mayo Clinic, also saw illegal sales drop in one year after launching a permit program in 1998. Businesses pay a $268 fee, plus $134 per register fee and a $300 state fee.

“In 2000, the rate (of illegal sales)  was 63 percent. That dropped to 21 percent,’’ Scholes said. There has been some fluctuation since, “but never gotten to even half of what it was before licensing.”

Most jurisdictions have the ability to levy fines, suspensions and revocations. Others prohibit new permits within 1,000 feet of schools, 500 feet of another tobacco retailer, or selling flavored tobacco.

Chair Deborah Kafoury said that Oregon was one of only 12 states to not have a licensing program and that the state should have adopted regulations during the 2015 legislative session.

“Unfortunately, it did not happen,’’ she said. “Sometimes it’s incumbent for us to lead the way, to show the state of Oregon what they can and should do.”

Kafoury said she would be holding public hearings beginning on Oct. 20 and would accept online comment at on a prospective program.

“This is a big step,’’ she said. “So it’s important to have the community involved.”

Jae Douglas, director of Multnomah County’s Environmental Health division, said core provisions of a licensing ordinance would:

  • Include community and retailer education and outreach

  • Include an annual license

  • Include all nicotine products including tobacco and vaping

  • Include fines, suspension and revocation

  • Prohibit mobile sales

  • Treat any violation of any county, state or federal law as a violation of a retail license

Douglas also said the responsibilities for educating and enforcing any new regulations would be tasks spread across six employee positions, some of whom would be full-time.

A goal would be to also support culturally responsive and trauma-informed smoking cessation programs and to have education and enforcement sensitive to those most impacted by the policy including small retailers, retailers of color and youth and people of color.