DENVER – Colorado voters could in November decide whether to begin taxing nicotine and raise the tax on cigarettes in order to pay for education and health care initiatives if a proposal unveiled Wednesday by Gov. Jared Polis, Democratic lawmakers and several health care officials can be referred to the ballot by the May 3 end of the legislative session.
The proposal comes as Colorado has the highest teen vaping rates in the nation, according to state and federal figures. A survey released last year by the state showed more than 26% of Colorado high school students said they used vaping devices, while just 7 percent said they smoked cigarettes.
The same study, the Colorado Healthy Kids Survey, found that 87% of high school students thought smoking cigarettes was risky but only half of students believed those same risks applied to vaping nicotine.
The proposal, which is likely to be formally unveiled Wednesday afternoon in the legislature, would raise around $300 million each year, according to stakeholders. Half of the money would go toward education programs – particularly for early childhood and preschool programs – and the other half would go toward health programs, which would be aimed at cessation and education efforts as well as behavioral health issues, supporters said Wednesday.
The Bell Policy Center said it estimates revenue would be increased by $317 million under the measure and that $158 million would go toward education services in the first year. It said the new revenue “will nearly double the amount of Colorado Preschool Program slots and create expanded learning opportunities for Colorado children.”
Polis noted that increasing tobacco and nicotine tax rates typically leads to large reductions in the rates of smoking among all populations – but particularly among young people.
He said he felt “moral and financial” imperatives to support the measure because it both touches most Coloradans and will have a large effect on the health and education of young people in the state.
Polis said that by raising the taxes, Coloradans would save money on health care and make an investment in the future.
The measure’s sponsor, Rep. Yadira Caraveo, D-Adams County, is a pediatrician and said she had hoped to bring such a measure forth once she became a lawmaker because of the conversations she’d had with teenagers and their families at her practice.
She said she believed teenagers were aware of the risks of smoking but weren’t quite as knowledgeable about the risks of vaping because the products are so new.
She also noted that tobacco and nicotine usage is typically higher among African-American, Hispanic and low-income populations, which she said would all see benefits from the education and health care-related windfalls that would come should the measure be approved by voters.
Children’s Hospital Colorado is supporting the measure, citing the vaping “epidemic” and need to pool resources to stop the growth of vaping among young people.
Pediatric lung specialist Dr. Robin Deterding said vaping at such young ages “can change the way the brain is connected forever.”
“We have to save this generation,” she said. “We all have to bring it.”
DaVita CEO Kent Thiry is also supporting the measure – rounding out a group of stakeholders that Polis said came together in recent weeks after months of talks.
Thiry said he had been eyeing a separate initiative on education development but merged his with the health-related proposal after speaking with Polis, Caraveo and House Speaker K.C. Becker, saying “the state of Colorado would be better off” if that happened.
The tax on a pack of cigarettes would be raised to about $2.50 per pack, Polis and Senior Advisor for Fiscal Policy Cary Kennedy said at Wednesday’s news conference. Nicotine sold for vaping devices would be taxed around 60%.
Polis and others at the news conference Wednesday said it would bring Colorado from around 40th in the nation in tobacco taxation to the middle of the pack.
The push to curb vaping in Colorado has been underway since at least last year, when former Gov. John Hickenlooper signed an executive order aiming to curb the use of e-cigarettes among teenagers.
But Colorado voters rejected a statewide ballot measure, Amendment 72, in 2016 that would have brought the cigarette tax to $2.59 per pack and increased the rate on other tobacco products – though not nicotine or vaping devices specifically.
The new tax money, under Amendment 72, should have gone toward medical research, tobacco-use prevention, doctors and clinics in rural or low-income areas, veterans’ services and more health programs.
The measure failed by a 53% to 47% margin.
But Polis said that he believes the measure could have a chance should it be referred by the Senate to November’s ballot, noting that Amendment 72 received more support than other proposal constitutional amendments that failed in 2018 and saying that the support from Thiry, the education and health care communities would push the measure over the edge.
But tobacco companies and other opponents are sure to fight the measure. Opponents of Amendment 72 in 2016 raised more than $17 million to fight the measure.
And with hundreds of bills still in the queue before the May 3 end of the legislative session, there are questions of whether such a measure can make it through the General Assembly in time.
“I think the House and Senate will be able to make this a priority and get this through in the last week,” Caraveo said.