Vapor products, e-cigarettes could be taxed under new Washington bill

OLYMPIA, Wash.  — Measures to tax vapor, e-cigarettes and other nicotine products are being considered by lawmakers in Washington state.

A bill in the House proposes treating vapor products and e-cigarettes like tobacco products, where distributors are generally taxed at 95 percent of the wholesale price. Another measure proposes a 60 percent tax. In many areas of the state consumers on average pay a 9.5 percent sales tax rate on vapor products, but if the measures pass, customers in turn will see a markup.

Under the higher proposed rate, consumers could pay closer to 39 percent in "other tobacco product" taxes, not including retail sales tax, which would be added to the shelf price.

Public hearings for the bills are scheduled next week.

"This tax is something these companies should have been paying all along," said Democratic Rep. Gerry Pollet, sponsor of House Bill 2144. "They've gotten off scot-free for years, while causing incredible damage to peoples' health in the state."

Pollet, who also teaches public health at the University of Washington, says people are being "tricked" into thinking vapor products are safer than cigarettes. He said they could be "marginally" better in comparison to regular cigarettes, but still can contain harmful chemicals.

"Unlike cigarettes that destroy your lungs slowly vapor products and e-cigarettes can contain diacetyl, which is a chemical that acts rapidly and destroys the inside of peoples' lungs," he said.

A study published in 2015 in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives found harmful chemicals associated with "popcorn lung" are present in many types of flavored e-cigarettes, particularly those with flavors like fruit and candy, which Pollet says is how companies attract young users. Of the 51 flavored e-cigarettes tested, diacetyl was found in 39 samples and 47 contained flavoring chemicals.

Mary McHale of the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network said the cause for concern, aside from not really knowing the long term effects of these products, is the "sharp increase" in use among youth in Washington and nationally. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention during 2011 to 2014, current e-cigarette use among high school students rose from 1.5 percent to 13.4 percent, and among middle school students from 0.6 percent to 3.9 percent.

However, e-cigarette and vapor product use dropped approximately five percentage points among 10th graders from 2014 to 2016 in Washington state, according to a 2016 survey conducted by several state agencies including the Department of Health.

"It's really startling when you look at how many young people use these products," she said. "I think it's been ingrained in them that tobacco products are bad but when you ask them about e-cigarettes they view them largely as harmless and that's a really big problem."

Vaporizers are typically more customizable, and offer a variety of different flavors including strawberry, tobacco, and even fried ice cream. Vapes generally also last longer, and hold more liquid than e-cigarettes, which are usually prefilled in cartons and are sold at gas stations or other convenient stores. Both do not contain tobacco, but can contain nicotine.

Zach McLain, the owner of Future Vapor in Seattle, says he opposes this tax for many reasons.

McLain, 43, says his business and hundreds alike would be "destroyed" if the tax passed the Legislature.

"There's no doubt we'll have to close our doors," he said. "Nobody will be able to afford the products; they'll find them online somewhere or figure out another source where they're cheaper."

A lot of people, he said, have misconceptions about vaping. McLain said he's seen people, including himself, quit smoking and switch to vaping as alternative.

"The only thing vapor products have in common with cigarettes is they can contain nicotine," he said, which has been proven to be addictive. "Everything else is completely different... It's like we are tricking our minds that we are smoking but we're not."

He said vaping takes the combustion part out of the smoking equation and allows people to have the "ritual" of smoking without the harmful effects such as tar and other additives found in cigarettes.

California, Kansas, Louisiana, Minnesota, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia and Washington, D.C., currently tax e-cigarettes and vape products, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. At least 15 other states considered legislation to tax e-cigarettes this year including Alaska, Oregon and Washington.