Under a naked florescent light in the shadowy basement of a government building, a young woman in a brown trench coat slammed a folder down on the table.
A crime has taken place, she said. Do you recognize any of these men?
The suspects: tobacco company executives and retailers. The alleged crime: targeting Americas youth. The evidence: a gallon jar of cigarette butts reportedly collected from the ground near Montezuma-Cortez High School.
Dressed as detectives, Meggie Curtis, Deirdre McAlister and Brittani Watkins of the School Community Youth Coalition gave an interactive presentation on youth tobacco use to the Cortez City Council Tuesday.
They said tobacco kills more than 400,000 people in the United States annually and 90 percent of tobacco users become addicted by age 18.
The presentation is part of an effort by an alliance of area organizations that have taken up the charge against youth tobacco use, and has suggested a licensing system for tobacco stores in the city similar to an existing liquor license system.
The Target Tobacco Coalition, the Montezuma County Health Departments tobacco education and prevention program and the School Community Youth Coalitions youth leadership council have spent the past year studying underage tobacco access and use in the county, and are proposing regulations in Cortez.
Under the proposed system, stores that sell tobacco would pay $250 to $400 annually to buy a license to sell tobacco. If found to be selling tobacco to youths under 18, the stores would be fined for each violation. After three violations, the store would lose its license to sell noncigarette tobacco.
The group is also proposing restricting new businesses from selling tobacco within 1,000 feet of a youth facility. Existing businesses would be grandfathered in and not be subject to this restriction. Lastly, the group is exploring a ban on minors in a tobacco business without a legal guardian, and requirements that juveniles not be able to sell tobacco.
If city council approves the proposal, Cortez will be the first city in Colorado to have a tobacco license.
In response to the presentation, councilors raised concerns about the proposal not addressing adults buying tobacco for minors and enforcement of the policy.
Ultimately, it comes down to a police force that is down on its numbers, Mayor Dan Porter said.
Under the groups proposal, the annual license fee would go to pay for the enforcement and administration of the policy.
At the Feb. 22 city council workshop, Julia Hesse, coordinator of the county tobacco education and prevention program, told the council six out of 10 youths in Montezuma County reported using tobacco.
Hesse said that since state funding for tobacco use prevention was slashed from $23 million to $7 million, the rate of tobacco use among youths is once again on the rise. She argued that regulation is more effective than public awareness campaigns at preventing tobacco use.
Hesse said the license would provide teeth to laws banning retailers from selling tobacco products to minors.
Colorado does not have a licensing mechanism for tobacco sales. The state is one of only seven in the U.S. that do not license tobacco sales. Businesses caught selling to minors are fined, Hesse said, but there is no stronger consequence.
Cortez Police Chief Roy Lane told the council at the Feb. 22 meeting that under current laws, enforcement of tobacco sales to juveniles is a nightmare, essentially requiring retailers to be caught in the act.
Lane said sting operations would be set up four times a year to test if retailers are selling tobacco to youths. He said the operation would require 45 minutes of a police officers time, not including the time it takes to write reports and testify in municipal court, where violation cases would be heard.
The group plans to include language in the proposed policy that would specifically target noncigarette tobacco products, an acknowledgment of the excise tax the city receives from cigarette sales, which is distributed through the state to the city at the tune of approximately $39,000 annually.
The city of Cortez abandoned its municipal tax on cigarettes when a state taxing program was initiated, City Manager Jay Harrington said.
Hesse believes the policy will still be effective, pointing to a survey completed in 2008 in which nearly 45 percent of area high school students reported using forms of tobacco other than cigarettes.
We dont even allow minors in our store, Donna Shepherd, owner of Smoke-N-Stuff on Main Street, previously told the Journal. I disagree with the idea because that is already our policy and we shouldnt have to pay for a license when we are already doing a step above what the law requires us to do. We are already taxed up the wazoo, and we are doing what we are supposed to do.
The council is not scheduled to vote on the matter yet.
Reach Reid Wright at [email protected]