Legislature considers 75% tax on e-cigarettes

State lawmakers want to levy a 75 percent tax on electronic cigarettes, prompting opposition from a growing community of those who use the tobacco substitute.

Electronic cigarettes, or e-cigs, might look like normal cigarettes, but they contain no tobacco. Instead, a heating element vaporizes a nicotine and flavoring solution, which individuals inhale. Users don’t smoke, they vape.

Sponsored by Seattle Democratic Rep. Reuven Carlyle, House Bill 2795 would subject e-cigs and other tobacco substitutes to a 75 percent tax. The proposal makes concessions to exempt electronic cigarettes prescribed by physicians to aid individuals in quitting tobacco, should the USDA find electronic cigarettes to be a cessation aid.

Tobacco products such as cigars and chewing tobacco are already subject to a 95 percent “other tobacco products” tax.

“An important part of the objective (of the legislation) is to equalize taxes and mitigate negative effects of the product,” Carlyle said.

Advocates for e-cigs say their lack of tobacco makes them safer and that they help people quit smoking. The FDA has not completed any research studying the risks of electronic cigarettes, and it is unknown if they have any of the 50 carcinogenic chemicals that are found in tobacco cigarettes.

Vaping, as it is called, has prompted local regulation in some communities. In 2011, the Tacoma-Pierce County Board of Health voted to prohibit the sale of electronic cigarettes to minors and allow electronic cigarettes only in places where minors are prohibited or retail outlets that exclusively sell the devices. A ban on smoking and vaping on Thurston County properties, but not parks, went into effect Jan. 1.

Carlyle’s original proposal called for a 95 percent tax, but the rate was reduced to 75 percent in the legislation that passed out of the House Finance Committee on Tuesday morning.

The proposed bill passed 7-6, with Rep. Chris Reykdal, a Democrat from Tumwater, siding with Republican committee members against taxation. Reykdal said without data from the FDA, it’s hard for him to justify punishing individuals trying to make a potentially healthier choice.

Dozens of people attended a hearing Friday to tell lawmakers that imposing a high tax on e-cigs would harm businesses and make those who vape revert back to smoking.

Angela Britton of Puyallup said e-cigs helped her quit a 20-year habit of smoking. While she still vapes, Britton said the amount of nicotine she inhales is less than what she inhaled while smoking.

But if taxes go up on electronic cigarettes, Britton said she would have to go back to smoking.

A pack of cigarettes costs roughly $9, while a 10 milliliter bottle of the liquid combination of flavoring and nicotine used by electronic cigarettes sells for around $8 at Future Vapor in Seattle. Co-owner Zack McLain said a 10 milliliter bottle is the equivalent of 5 packs of cigarettes, and reusable electronic cigarettes retail for $30-$200.

Even though there might be larger up-front costs, McLain said electronic cigarettes are cheaper in the long run. But that could change if a 75 percent tax is instituted.