Multnomah County requires tobacco license fee for retailers

June 16, 2016

Joanne Fuller, health department director (right) and Tricia Tillman, public health director at Thursday's board meeting.

Beginning July 1, all businesses selling tobacco or nicotine products in Multnomah County must be licensed or face fines or penalties.

The Multnomah County Board of Commissioners on Thursday unanimously approved a $580 annual license and penalties starting at $500 and mandatory training for the first violation.

The vote was the latest in a series of Board actions to keep children from illegally buying and then becoming addicted to tobacco. Tobacco remains the leading cause of death in Multnomah County and surveys show 90 percent of adult smokers started before age 18.

This action, said Chair Deborah Kafoury, “is long overdue.”

Although selling cigarettes to minors has been illegal for decades, Oregon is one of the few states in the country that has no tobacco retail licensing and no way to hold businesses accountable. The Board approved a license in November 2015 after state and federal surveys showed Multnomah County had some of the highest rates of illegal sales in the nation.

“Not only is Oregon one of the few states in the country that had no tobacco retail licensing,” says Kafoury, “Multnomah County was one of the highest in the country for sales, illegal sales to minors. We weren’t just making a few mistakes here and there. We were actually at the top of the list.”

The Health Department has already begun an outreach campaign to educate retailers and licensing that will begin on July 1.

But Health Department officials stressed that education is the key aim of the new rules.

“This program is not being implemented to find people doing bad things and impose consequences,’’ said Joanne Fuller, the health department director for Multnomah County, says, “Overall what we want to do is increase the knowledge about and compliance with the laws and reduce youth access to tobacco in the community.”

After the Board approved the ordinance in November, it appointed a Rules Advisory Committee of business owners, advocates and public health professionals to establish specific license and penalty fees.

Public comments were accepted on the rules and 85% of respondents agreed the action would decrease youth access to tobacco products and 77% said the rules and fees were fair on retailers.

The Health Department estimates about 875 licenses will be issued in the first year. Like the county’s restaurant inspection program, all fees will go toward the running of the program, expected to be about $507,500 the first year.

Penalties for violating any rules start at a $500 and increase after each additional violation. Businesses will have a chance to remediate their problems, similar to the restaurant inspection process.

The revenue from license and penalty fees will be used to educate tobacco retailers on the laws. And a focus, says Tricia Tillman who is the public health director for Multnomah County, is on culturally responsive training.

“What we recognize is that retailers represent a whole bunch of different cultures and languages and so we want to make sure that the applications are in multiple languages, that communication is in multiple languages.”

Chris Girard, the Chairman and CEO of Plaid Pantries which is a large tobacco retailer in the state, commented in the meeting that the inspections were too severe on retailers. He suggested a five-year lookback to revisit the rules of the resolution and their affect on businesses.

Members of the board, Fuller and Tillman agreed to review the resolution in the future and monitor its impact.

“Our goal is to keep tobacco out of the hands of minors. Our goal is not to put people who are trying very hard to follow the laws out of business,” said Kafoury. “We want people to succeed. We are not out there to be punitive.”

And she looks forward to reconvening next year on the progress that is made. “I want to know from folks in the community how we’re being received, whether they’re actually getting the training that they feel that they need,” she said. “I’d like to have us come back in a year and have some data about what we’re doing.”