Huge win for Oregon to keep kids safe from tobacco

Quick Summary

Tara Weston and Sarah Wylie specialize in tobacco retail education and licensure at the Oregon Health Authority. Tobacco retail licensing allows Oregon to make stores healthier places for everyone to shop. This law helps prevent illegal sales to youth and supports other policies to create healthier places.

Today, Place Matters Oregon (PMO) explores a new law that just took effect this year requiring all tobacco retailers in Oregon to be licensed. This new law will reduce youth access to commercial tobacco by helping retailers follow tobacco sales laws and holding retailers accountable if they make illegal sales.

Our guests are Tara Weston, MPH, Interim Tobacco Retail Education and Enforcement Systems Lead/Community Programs Liaison and Sarah Wylie, MPH, Interim Manager for the Tobacco Retail License Program/Health Promotion Strategist, both for the Health Promotion and Chronic Disease Prevention section at the Oregon Health Authority.

PMO: Thanks to both of you for joining us. Sarah, let’s start with you. Now that the state will be collecting a license fee, fill us in on how the new law works, what the state will do with the funds and how it’s going so far.

Sarah: OHA’s new Oregon Tobacco Retail License Program requires stores to get a license from the Oregon Department of Revenue to sell tobacco in the state. It will help Oregon prevent illegal sales to youth in several ways—we’re using the license fees to educate retailers on how they can prevent underage tobacco sales, as well as increase our enforcement of age limits to purchase tobacco. And now that Oregon can better track where tobacco is being sold, we can monitor the number, location and density of tobacco retailers in a community.

As of February 2022, the Oregon Department of Revenue has issued more than 2,200 licenses, and that’s out of about 3,000 retailers we estimate need a license. So, we’ve made considerable progress!

PMO: Why is this law so important?

Sarah: Keeping tobacco out of the hands of youth protects their health today and gives them the opportunity for a life free from addiction to nicotine. Both Tara and I have seen family members struggle with and die from tobacco addiction and secondhand smoke. We’re public servants, but we also care deeply about this issue personally. We know that strong licensing programs can reduce youth tobacco use. With more training and education for retailers—as well as having real consequences for retailers who are not complying—we believe this is going to make a big difference.

1.	By the numbers:
•	Recent data from 2020 show that 12% of Oregon 11th-graders reported using an e-cigarette product with nicotine within the past month 
•	1 in 5 retailers the state inspected sold e-cigarettes illegally to a person younger than 21 
More facts: 
•	Nearly 90% of people who use tobacco start before they turn 18. 
•	A study of 33 communities around the country showed dramatic decreases in youth tobacco sales since requiring tobacco retail licenses.  
•	Before this law, Oregon was one of just seven states in the U.S. that did not require retailers to have a license.

PMO: Tara, you’ve been working on the enforcement and rules side of this process—what kind of tools do you have to help enforce this new law and what are the consequences if retailers don’t comply?

Tara: Sarah and I received so many calls from the public about violations in the past, and we were powerless to do anything about it. Now we can. Because this program exists, we come to work every day knowing we have better tools to make a difference. We now have funds for Oregon to educate retailers about tobacco sales laws and answer any questions they may have. We also created an inspection program to check for compliance and issue penalties if a retailer violates the law. If these laws are violated over and over, the state has the option to pause or remove a retailer’s ability to sell tobacco. Now that the state can potentially revoke a license, we’re anticipating retailers will be extra careful in making sure they only sell to adults.

PMO: Several Oregon communities had already started a system for licensing tobacco retailers, correct? How does this work for them, and for tribal nations as well?

Sarah: That’s right—Benton, Clatsop, Klamath and Multnomah counties, plus the City of Eugene, already had tobacco retail license programs in place, and those communities are continuing their efforts in close coordination with our state program. And the state license fee doesn’t apply to retailers on tribal lands.

Child looking at tobacco advertisements outside of a convenience store

PMO: This has been a long time in the making, correct? Tell us how we reached this point and what major milestones helped along the way?

Tara: Oh my goodness, yes! Sarah and I are so thrilled to see it all come to fruition after over a decade of deliberation and looking at other states to see what we could learn from and improve upon. In 2021, the Oregon Legislature passed Senate Bill 587 to require retailers to get a license to sell tobacco products and e-cigarettes starting in 2022. This means Oregon finally has a way to enforce sales laws and prevent tobacco from getting into the hands of people under the age of 21. Before, we could only sample stores here and there and see if they were complying; now we will have the resources to inspect every tobacco retailer, every year.

It was a true collaboration between state and local public health, the Oregon Department of Revenue, groups like the American Heart Association and retailers. We wanted to create a comprehensive strategy to reduce youth tobacco use and strengthen enforcement of state tobacco laws that we already had in place, but frankly, didn’t have the resources to make it stick. We believe we now have one of the strongest tobacco licensing systems in the nation.

We were very deliberate in our process and careful to include community partners to serve on a Rules Advisory Committee. We recruited people from communities that will be affected most by these rules, including retailers as well as people the tobacco industry has targeted. Our Rules Advisory Committee members helped us shape the program, including the education and enforcement components.

PMO: Share a bit about how you made the decision to direct penalties to the retailer, and not someone trying to purchase tobacco illegally.

Sarah: There is a very simple reason for this choice—retailers are profiting from the business of selling tobacco products, the leading preventable cause of death in Oregon and the country. It’s clear to us that people who choose to sell this product, and are making a profit from it, should not be able to sell it illegally to kids. If they violate the law, there are now strong consequences.

Candy and tobacco packaging can look similar. Could a child tell the difference?

PMO: How is this helpful from an equity perspective in Oregon?

Sarah: We were able to create this law from a viewpoint of public health, which was a key first step. This means that we eliminated penalties for underage youth who purchase or possess tobacco. There’s no evidence that penalizing children reduces youth smoking, and we were concerned about creating harmful interactions between law enforcement and kids of color. We decided instead to put the responsibility for following the law on retailers who profit from selling tobacco products.

PMO: Since we at Place Matters Oregon are interested in the connections between place and health, how do you think this new law links us to healthier places?

Sarah: Now tobacco retailers in every place in Oregon will be held to the same standard. Tobacco retail licensing allows OHA to make stores healthier places for everyone to shop. We also believe this law supports other policies to create healthier places that local communities might want to create on their own, such as buffers for no tobacco sales around schools, restrictions on retailer density, or prohibiting flavored products that are more likely to hook kids.

PMO: What’s next as this new law gets underway?

Tara: As of January 2022, the Department of Revenue began checking that retailers have a license. For the first six months, OHA and local public health departments are reaching out with education to help retailers get their license and understand how to comply with tobacco laws. OHA public health compliance checks – and associated penalties – will begin this summer in July. And then, retailers will need to renew their tobacco retail license annually.

If you see a retailer selling tobacco products without a license, without checking ID, or selling to someone younger than 21, you can report it by emailing [email protected] or calling 971-673-0984.

1. Oregon Health Authority. Student Health Survey, 2020.

2. Oregon Health Authority. “Oregon Tobacco Retail Enforcement Inspection Results,” 2019. =

3. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “The Health Consequences of Smoking—50 Years of Progress: A Report of the Surgeon General, 2014 | SurgeonGeneral.Gov,” 2014.

4. The Center for Tobacco Policy & Organizing and American Lung Association in California. “Tobacco Retailer Licensing Is Effective,” September 2018.

Sarah Wylie, MPH, is an interim Manager of the Tobacco Retail License Program / Health Promotion Strategist, Oregon Health Authority, Health Promotion and Chronic Disease Prevention

Tara Weston, MPH, is an interim Tobacco Retail Education and Enforcement Systems Lead/Community Programs Liaison/Arthritis Program Coordinator, Oregon Health Authority, Health Promotion and Chronic Disease Prevention.


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