Curry County commissioners said it would be too expensive to implement a tobacco business license and underage inspection program, despite a request to consider it to enforce tobacco laws and protect youth.

Brooklyn Wease, the tobacco prevention coordinator with Curry Community Health, asked commissioners at a workshop Wednesday to consider implementing such a license to better monitor tobacco sales in light of the popularity of flavored and liquid tobacco products.

Currently, she said, there are 26 retailers in Curry County that sell tobacco products, and the state liquor control commission tries to conduct inspections — hiring people under the age of 21 to try to purchase tobacco — once a year.

An enforcement program would be an investment in the health of the community, she said, especially with the advent of new tobacco products on the market and the state bumping the age at which people can purchase them from 18 to 21.

Currently, the state conducts such inspections by sending in someone younger than the legal age at which they can purchase tobacco to see if a retailer will sell to them. The last inspection here involved 11 retailers of whom two sold tobacco products to a minor.

Protecting youth

Wease noted most smokers start as minors, and the increasing popularity with vape pens and flavored tobaccos are designed to attract youth to a lifetime of addiction.

A 2017 Oregon Health Authority Healthy Teen Study shows 7.4 percent of 11th-graders smoked tobacco in the past 30 days, she said, and another 12.5 used some form of tobacco in that same period. More than half have seen ads in storefronts.

“It’s significant because kids are not only noticing these, but they are using them,” Wease said. “A retail license is a way to protect youth, a way to enforce (laws regarding) sales to minors.”

Increasingly, communities are enacting laws prohibiting the sale of the new vaping and flavored tobaccos, she noted. She added that if a program were implemented at the local level, state health officials recommend twice-a-year inspections.

Commissioner Tom Huxley said such a program would be an example of “government gone wild.”

“We don’t need more government,” he said, citing the cost and time to increase enforcement at the local level. “You could spend $20,000, $30,000 or more — I’m not exaggerating — to try to reasonably (enforce it) and still get nowhere.”

He said expenses would involve hiring someone under 21 and a chaperone to ensure their safety and monitor the attempted sale.

“Meals, training, you have to have this, you have to have that, on and on and on and on,” he said. “It’s a money hole. I don’t see it as anything more than making more government jobs.”

“Only 26 retailers shouldn’t take up too much time,” Wease said. “You could designate a (county) department to take this on, or contract it out to law enforcement. The state is really curious to see how effective that really is (raising the legal age to smoke to 21), but they’re missing the enforcement piece because they are so limited in their (resources).”

So is Curry County, noted Commissioner Sue Gold.

Gold added that, even though a new, part-time code enforcement officer was recently hired, the county will still have trouble keeping up with complaints regarding the plethora of rundown buildings that present health and safety issues in the county.

Commissioner Court Boice, however, said he favors the idea, particularly since today’s society has become “more permissive” and overlooks transgressions such as minors smoking. He also said not recognizing the issue results in bigger problems in the future.

“I don’t think it’s a matter of recognizing a problem, but coming up with a solution that best fits our financial situation,” Gold said, adding that she’d be interested in knowing how much of the products in question are sold locally. “We can set up all these laws, but if there’s no enforcement, they’re basically useless.”

County Attorney John Huttl said he has spoken with Curry Community Health about the enforcement of other health codes for which it is responsible, but said enforcement is a government function and can’t be contracted out.

“I don’t even know where this would fall,” he said of jurisdiction. “Public health? The general police powers of the county? We have plenty of enforcement to do, and we don’t have a good history of enforcement. We’re having enough trouble keeping up with the enforcement cases we have, and this would just add to it.”

Curry Community Health’s Public Health Administrator Ben Cannon argued that such expenses are investments in the future of citizens.

“Yes, there are personnel costs,” he said. “In public health, we talk about ‘years of potential life lost,’ and the burden of tobacco on citizens is quite high. It’s quantifiable.”

Boice agreed, saying, “I don’t know if a lot of people would think that is ‘government gone wild.’ I’ve spent time with the OLCC; they have addressed many of the problems tobacco has brought to our society. It has earned its merit badge.”