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Carbondale fines noncompliant retailers for underage nicotine sales

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In its first round of compliance tests since the town officially raised the legal age to purchase tobacco products from 18 to 21 in July, four out of nine Carbondale retailers failed — and each was slapped with a $1,000 first-offense fine.

While that would be a failing percentage by most academic standards, it’s actually quite typical, explained Ginny Chadwick, Western Regional Director of Tobacco 21, a Preventing Tobacco Addiction Foundation campaign to raise the minimum age for sale of nicotine products nationwide.

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“Honestly, that’s about the right compliance rate — it’s egregious, but it’s not atypical,” she said, adding that Columbus, Ohio reported about 66-percent compliance after its first operation among more than 800 retailers. “Even in the city of Denver, they do four retail compliance checks per retailer per year, and those who violate the first time, their repetitive violation rate was about 22 percent.”

That’s actually the more concerning statistic for Chadwick, which is why Tobacco 21 penned a letter to the Town of Carbondale criticising some of its policy implementations; chiefly, that the town decided against tobacco retail licensing.

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Carbondale Town Manager Jay Harrington maintains that the decision against licensing came down to logistics.

“Between liquor and marijuana licensing, there’s a fair amount of licensing in a one-person office, so that’s different from their model.”

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Additionally, the letter expressly requested that the town reverse its possession laws, which penalize underage users instead of the retailers perpetuating the sales cycle.  

“Unfortunately, that didn’t happen,” Chadwick said. “I know the police chief testified — I watched the hearing. I think it was good intentions but lack of information. Based on data, possession laws don’t decrease use rate.”

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But, Harrington countered, they do allow confiscation. And nobody is interested in putting undue burden on underage users, he added. As a father of a teenager, Harrington himself has a lot of compassion for students grappling with nicotine addiction.

“It’s not a common ticket we give,” he said. “It’s not that the town wants to criminalize folks, but it allows us to confiscate things.”

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And by “things,” he’s talking overwhelmingly about vaping pens and accessories. About 53 percent of Roaring Fork Schools students reported that they’d tried vaping, according to a 2017 Colorado Healthy Kids Survey — and 37 percent of those surveyed admitted to having vaped nicotine in the last 30 days.

“I knew that vaping was going on, but till the board brought it up as an issue, it was eye-opening to me, looking at the numbers,” Harrington said, noting that students of all demographics in all Valley schools are exposed.

Risa Turetsky, a tobacco specialist with Pitkin County Health, doesn’t hesitate to acknowledge the difficulties around managing the nuances that make combating underage vaping such a policy struggle.

“It’s obviously not a unidimensional problem, and I think we recognize that part of this is normal, adolescent development — the interest in trying things and experimenting — but it’s so dangerous because of the long-term addiction,” she said. “That awareness piece is really important, but knowledge does not equal behavior change, especially when it comes to young people.”

In that regard, Roaring Fork High School Principal Brett Stringer is working doggedly to shift students’ perspectives about vaping.

“The ‘just say no’ approach doesn’t work,” he said.

Instead, the school is working on explaining the industry’s marketing strategy: “Who’s behind it and that they’re being taken advantage of. That’s actually been more impactful than anything else,” Stringer said. “Some of our kids’ responses have been, ‘Oh, that’s not cool.’”

That’s a big deal in what has been marketed as a very cool industry. Juul, which boasts 71 percent of the American e-cigarette market and was recently valued at more than $15 billion, originally threw pop-up parties and had more than 650,000 social media followers. “Juuling” is a verb, often combined with hashtags of favored flavors, such as creme brulee (now just “creme”) and cool cucumber (now cucumber).

“When you look at Juul’s growth the last year, it’s all on addicting a generation,” Harrington said.  

Earlier this month, the Federal Drug Administration announced a plan to curtail the sales of flavored e-cigarettes in retail spaces without age restrictions, prompting Juul to redirect its marketing messaging to adults and closing its social media accounts.

The experts agree that may not be enough; for now, policies at the ground level seem to be most effective. And while Chadwick may not agree with everything Carbondale is doing, she commended most of what’s been done so far.

“It sounds like they’re doing a good job,” she said. “I’m impressed that they did issue fines of $1,000. The only problem is you don’t have a way to suspend or revoke [a license] if they continue to do it.”

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