The city of Aspen is considering asking voters in November to impose a tax on all tobacco products.
The city council asked its staff Monday to continue working on a question for the November ballot that would add a $4 tax on the price of a pack of cigarettes and a 40 percent tax on other tobacco products.

“We had one of the first indoor smoking bans in the country, and we got a little grief for that way back when,” Aspen City Councilman Adam Frisch said. “We turned out to be one of the leading cities, and now it’s really hard to go into even bars in New York City and find places you can smoke indoors.”

The city recently became the only place in Colorado where you have to be 21 to buy cigarettes. Across the U.S., four states and more than 250 local jurisdictions already changed their legal age to buy tobacco products.

Frisch said raising the price of a pack of cigarettes would complement the city’s effort to curb teen smoking. The data backs up Frisch’s theory that raising the age limit and prices curbs teen smoking.

When a town in Massachusetts became the first place in the country to raise the smoking age to 21, it saw a 47 percent reduction in high school students who smoked, according to a study by Metrowest Health Foundation.

But higher prices produce mixed results when it comes to getting people in lower income brackets to quit.

It’s true that people quit when the price of tobacco products goes up. A 2017 study by theWorld Health Organization and the National Cancer Institute backs that up.

“Lower income populations often respond more to tobacco tax and price increases than higher income populations,” according to the study. “As a result, significant tobacco tax and price increases can help reduce the health disparities resulting from tobacco use.”

However, those who don’t quit are more likely to end up requesting food stamps or other government services.

Kyle Rozema, an economist at the University of Chicago, and his colleague tracked smoking and non-smoking households in places where cigarette taxes increased.

Those cities, counties and states saw an increase in food stamp applications when the price of tobacco products went up.

Aspen’s proposal could push the price of a pack from around $6 to $10. That means a full-time minimum wage worker who smokes a pack a day would spend $3,650 a year – or 18 percent of their income – on cigarettes.

Frisch said he’s cognizant of the fact that a tobacco tax is regressive, meaning it hurts people who make less money more.

“But I think it sends a message to the community and it sends a message to the tourist base and the rest of the world is we are trying to lead a very healthy lifestyle here in Aspen …” Firsch said. “And so this is just another tile in the mosaic of what Aspen’s trying to represent.”

He added that people can drive 10 to 15 miles to get outside the city limits if they want cheaper cigarettes.

Altria, the parent company of Phillip Morris, told 9NEWS in a statement that it opposed the increase precisely because people could just drive a few miles down the road:

“Altria's tobacco operating companies oppose tobacco product excise tax increases that are unfair to adult tobacco consumers and are costly to legitimate businesses, including retailers and wholesalers. Tobacco product sales are an important revenue source for many retailers and wholesalers. According to the National Association of Convenience Stores, sales of cigarettes and other tobacco products account for nearly 36 percent of all in-store sales at convenience stores nationwide. When adult tobacco consumers react to tax increases by shifting their purchases across state or city lines or other sources, legitimate retailers and wholesalers lose sales and revenues. Retailers lose revenues not only from tobacco sales, but gas, groceries and other products often purchased at the same time as tobacco products.”

Aspen has until Aug. 28 to finalize language for the November ballot.

Councilman Ward Hauenstein said, “I would project it’s safe to say that it’s going to be on the ballot in November.”