CORVALLIS — Benton County took the first steps on Tuesday toward limiting or banning flavored tobacco products, including menthol cigarettes, sweetened cigars and flavored vaping cartridges.
At a morning work session, the Board of Commissioners voted unanimously to back a Health Department proposal to work with municipal governments to restrict the sale of flavored tobacco products in the county and take a number of other steps aimed at curbing tobacco use by young people.
The proposal is still in the developmental stage and would require the cooperation of other local jurisdictions to take effect within the cities of Corvallis, Philomath, Monroe and Adair Village or the North Albany community.
A state law that took effect last year prohibits the sale of tobacco or vaping products to anyone younger than 21. But data collected by the county's Tobacco Prevention and Education Program suggests teen smoking may be on the rise again after years of decline, largely because of the ready availability of vaping devices.
According to program leader John Ruyak, a health policy specialist with the Benton County Health Department, nearly 12% of 11th graders in local schools are vaping on a regular basis.
He said the ready availability of flavored tobacco products — from menthol cigarettes to Swisher Sweet-type little cigars to vaping cartridges formulated to taste like vanilla Wafers or apple juice — is a leading factor in youth tobacco use.
"The earlier someone uses a tobacco product in their life, the likelier they are to go on to a lifetime of tobacco use," Ruyak told the commissioners.
"(Flavoring) is really what drives youth to use these products."
If Benton County does enact restrictions on flavored tobacco products, Ruyak added, it would be the first in the state to do so, although there are similar laws in place in some parts of the country.
The proposal being developed by the Health Department includes a number of other components. In addition to banning or limiting the sale of flavored products, the proposal also calls for prohibiting retailers from selling any tobacco products at highly discounted rates.
The department also wants to develop a multijurisdictional program to enforce tobacco laws within the county, an increase in fees paid by retailers to fund the enforcement program and the addition of enforcement language to the county's tobacco ordinance.
"At this point there is no ongoing compliance check mechanism that relates to this ordinance ... which means we have no consistent enforcement of violations even if we know about them."
He added that there are five retailers in Corvallis that are selling tobacco without a license, in violation of local requirements.
Health Department Director Dawn Emerick chimed in to support the notion of a multijurisdictional enforcement effort.
“This is not a new idea,” she said. “All we’re doing is enforcing a law that’s already on the books.”
The board indicated solid support of the plan, with Chair Annabelle Jaramillo asking County Administrator Joe Kerby to raise the subject in his next meeting with city managers.
“I think it makes sense to start working on a multijurisdictional effort,” added Commissioner Xan Augerot.
The board took several actions during its afternoon meeting on Tuesday, starting with conducting a second reading of an ordinance to enact a countywide transient lodging tax.
Effective July 1, the county will add a 3% surcharge to bills for all short-term accommodations, including hotels, RV parks and Airbnb-style rental properties.
The new tax is on top of city and state taxes and is expected to raise about $600,000 a year for the county.
State law requires at least 70% of the tax revenues be used for tourism-related purposes, and the lion’s share of the money is expected to go to the Benton County Fairgrounds.
In other action from the May 21 meeting, the board:
• Granted permission to use the Dial-A-Bus service to transport attendees at a Meals on Wheels fundraising event.
• Voted to donate $500 toward this year’s Open Streets active transportation event.
• Approved a $500 donation toward this year’s Philomath Frolic & Rodeo.
• Approved a $2,500 contribution to support Celebrate LBL, a regional awards ceremony put on by the Oregon Cascades West Council of Governments.
• Approved salary range adjustments for union-represented engineering and property appraisal jobs.
• Endorsed a grant application for $88,000 in state funds to provide outreach and enrollment assistance for county residents applying for health coverage through the state insurance marketplace.
• Approved a five-year renewal of the county’s memorandum of agreement with the InterCommunity Health Network Coordinated Care Organization.
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