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Tobacco-Free Aurora pushes for city ordinance requiring retailers to be licensed

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What Tobacco-Free Aurora lacks in longevity and membership, it makes up for in ambition. Founded a little more than a year ago with a rotating volunteer staff of twelve to thirty, the group recently pushed the entirety of its efforts toward creating a city ordinance regulating the sale of tobacco across Aurora. Even the timeline is ambitious: The goal is to finalize the new law in time to start licensing by the fall.

These efforts are slightly complicated by one line in the state statute. According to the brief section, communities that impose a regulation on cigarettes can face a considerable financial penalty. The likelihood in this case is that the state could withhold Aurora's share of state tobacco tax funds if the new ordinance specifically includes cigarettes.

To get around that issue, Tobacco-Free Aurora is centering its campaign on all other tobacco products in order to discourage what the group says have been frequent local lapses in selling tobacco to minors. The issue, representatives say, is accountability: The goals of the group's call for licensing include considerations for requiring store clerks who sell tobacco to be eighteen or older, keeping all tobacco products behind the counter, barring minors from tobacco stores unless accompanied, suspending or revoking retailers' licenses if they sell to a minor and checking stores for sales to minors on a regular basis.

Under the ordinance, even hookah bars would be regulated to ban all minors not accompanied by a parent or guardian. "Licensing is very common throughout the country, just not here," says Tad Spencer, director of Colorado Tobacco Prevention Initiatives. "This is a product that's illegal for a large portion of the population, so if you're choosing to sell that product, there needs to be enforcement to make sure it's getting into the right hands. Rather than enforcing it through the common taxpayer, the people in the business should be paying for their own enforcement."

For the past two years in a row, Aurora was named one of the 100 Best Communities For Young People by America's Promise, a network of community groups devoted to assisting youth. Spencer says the city's focus on such initiatives encouraged his parent organization to to fund the creation of Tobacco-Free Aurora in late 2010. Today, TFA is split between youth and adult missions, but both of its branches are pushing for local licensing.

In the past year, Colorado Tobacco Prevention Initiatives conducted a handful of focus groups in which teenagers admitted to purchasing tobacco products illegally, and the trend has been documented by the government as well. According to the Food and Drug Administration, seven Aurora businesses were cited for selling tobacco to minors between March and November of 2011.

"Most people assume that tobacco sales are already licensed, just like alcohol," Spencer says. "It just makes sense. But a couple people in the group have family members who have died of tobacco use and started when they were teens. We're all just thinking about the next generation of tobacco users and focusing on a way to prevent that next death."

The response to the proposal from local businesses has not been a pleasant one, with many worried that it would negatively impact their costs. But Tobacco-Free Aurora hopes to conduct educational meetings with a larger number of retailers in the following months. The group's argument is that protection for youth is a benefit to the community at large and thus a natural boon even to the retailers who would be required to maintain licenses.

In the past month, representatives of the pro-licensing community have met individually with Aurora City Council members, and Spencer argued the issue during public comment at the council's December 19 meeting. Although Tobacco-Free Aurora has enlisted web ads, direct mail and movie theater advertisements to promote its cause, the group is currently advancing its outreach arm to attract local businesses and politicians to publicly support the ordinance.

"We feel it can still be a strong license," he says, "because hopefully what it will do is create a more consistent system at the local level rather than just the state doing checks of only a quarter of the retailers in the state any given year. It would increase checks and the local presence on the issue."

In May 2011, Tobacco-Free Aurora conducted a community survey in preparation for its plans to seek a city ordinance. The group polled 900 voters -- 150 from each of the city's six wards -- and found that 67 percent of those who responded favored licensing tobacco retail. When asked about the potential implications of that ban (behind-the-counter access, hookah lounge age requirements, etc.), respondents upped their approval to between 82 and 91 percent favorability across the options. The numbers remained relatively consistent across each ward, Spencer says. As the group tries to win over local businesses and the city council for an early 2012 ordinance, he hopes this trend continues.

"I think at this stage of the game, everyone is in information-gathering mode and hasn't gone to one side of the other," Spencer says. "But we're trying to change that. They definitely want to hear from constituents, and I think that will help them understand where we're coming from."

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