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Vaping tax measure draws lots of opposition

This man, seen taking a break outside, was part of a crowd that showed up for a hearing on a measure to tax and regulate vaping products. Credit: John Stang

Here’s the simplest way to look at a proposal to regulate electronic cigarettes and impose a new tax on vaping-product sales:

The state’s health regulators, researchers and associations are gung-ho for concept. The state’s vaping community and some retail organizations are dead set against the idea.

That broad outline emerged from a Monday hearing by the Washington House Commerce & Gambling Committee hearing on a broad vaping-regulatory bill by Reps. Gerald Pollet, D-Seattle, and Paul Harris, R-Vancouver. Their proposal would levy a 95 percent tax on vaping products, ban minors from vaping, forbid flavored vaping fluids and ban Internet sales of vaping products.

An e-cigarette, which looks a little like an actual cigarette, is really just a tube with a heated atomizing device in it. A liquid — either laced with nicotine or nicotine-free, and sometimes flavored — is poured in and the heating atomizer turns the fluid into vapor, which is then inhaled or “vaped.”

Monday’s overflow crowd — primarily opponents to the bill — filled four rooms. Vaping community leaders did not know how many e-cigarette shops are in Washington, but estimated that number to be in the in the hundreds, along with several small vaping-device and liquid manufacturers.

“Your Washington vape shop is not part of big tobacco,” said Kim Thompson of Tacoma, a vape shop owner and member of the Pink Lung Brigade vaper organization.

The expected tax income under Pollet and Harris’ proposal is about $18 million for 2015-2017 and $78 million for 2017-2019. A similar bill in the Senate died. But the Senate has passed a bill by Sen. Bruce Dammeier, R-Puyallup, to require child-resistant packaging for e-cigarette products, which is working its way through the House.

Many vaping business people and customers argued the proposed tax would destroy the e-cigarette industry in Washington. “The 95 percent tax is going to put me out of business. It’s going to put other vaping shops out of business,” said Zach McLain, owner of a Seattle Capitol Hill vaping shop.

Customer Jacqueline LaVerne said, “The thousands of jobs created by this industry, we’ll lose because of the tax.” Representatives of the Washington Retail Association and 7-Eleven made similar arguments.

Joshua Baba, manager of the Vaporland chain of shops, contended that the majority of smokers are low-income people, so a high vaping tax would hit the poor the hardest.

Pollet countered that a report written by the University of Washington’s School of Public Health concluded that an average e-cigarette user spends about $33 a month on the products, compared to $150 to $200 a month spent by a pack-a-day smoker. Consequently, even with the 95 percent tax, vaping would remain radically cheaper than regular smoking, Pollet argued.

Washington Secretary of Health John Wiesman said the proposed tax structure “is walking the delicate balance” of keeping the state vaping industry alive, while creating reasonably high prices to discourage kids from vaping.

Several speakers at the hearing said that many vaping shops on their own already keep minors from buying e-cigarettes and the fluids –without state regulations in place. The bill’s opponents also argued that banning flavors from vaping liquids would discourage people from using e-cigarettes. Plus, they argued that forbidding Internet sales of vaping products would make Washington the sole state with such a ban, encouraging a black market.

Several state and county health agencies and associations supported the bill, along with staff from Gov. Jay Inslee’s office and Wiesman. All focused on the booming use of e-cigarettes by minors. And several pointed to the fact that the vaping industry is unregulated nationally or at the state level, with no controls over what is in the liquids used in the e-cigarettes. Toxic substances are routinely found in vaping liquids, they said.

“Nicotine, the predominant (ingredient) in vaping devices, is highly addicting,” Wiesman said.

The medical experts testifying on Monday, as well as the University of Washington School of Public Health report, said scientific evidence is inconclusive so far on the effectiveness of e-cigarettes in weaning people from smoking. The medical experts acknowledged that vaping is likely less dangerous than smoking, but added that it still has health risks.

Between 2008 and 2012, the number of e-cigarettes sold nationally reportedly grew from 50,000 to 5 million a year.

Vaping has skyrocketed among teens in Washington. A 2014 state survey showed that 8.5 percent of eighth graders, 18 percent of 10th graders and 23 percent of high school seniors in Washington had used e-cigarettes in the previous 30 days. That compares to 8 percent of high school sophomores reporting using real cigarettes in the previous 30 days.

The state’s poison control centers reported just two calls in 2010 relating to nicotine-laced vaping fluids, but 182 such calls in 2014. Of those 182 calls, 133 involved children, including 109 3-years-old or younger. Last year, a 1-year-old in New York state died from drinking vaping fluid.

 

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