Politics & Government

Inslee tax would nearly double cost of vaping

Chris Rosso says he gets as much of a nicotine fix with just a few puffs of his vape pen as he once did from smoking a cigarette.

Rosso, an employee at Tony’s Variety Store, a shop in Olympia that sells tobacco, cigarettes and vaping products, says he started using e-cigarettes two years ago. He claims vaping — using a battery-operated device to create a vapor from heated liquid nicotine that the user inhales — has helped him give up smoking.

“I went from 10 cigarettes a day to maybe using (a vape pen) 10 or 11 times,” he says. “A lot less time of my day is spent absorbing nicotine.”

Vaping has rapidly grown in popularity, becoming what was reported to be a $2.2 billion industry in 2014. But if Gov. Jay Inslee has his way, it will become more expensive for Washington residents.

Inslee has proposed a 95 percent excise tax on e-cigarettes and vaping products — the same tax rate now applied to other tobacco products. His plan also would add 50 cents to the cost of a pack of cigarettes in an effort to raise about $56 million in revenue. The House will have a hearing on the proposal next week.

Rosso says the typical 15-milliliter bottle of liquid nicotine with the concentration of 18 milligrams per milliliter – which costs about $7 in his store — is equivalent to the amount of nicotine in a carton of cigarettes. It takes Rosso a month to go through the bottle, while in his smoking days he would go through a carton of cigarettes every 10 days.

“In that sense, I’m pretty positive that I’ve weaned myself down,” he says, noting the products aren’t intended to be marketed as cessation products.

That $7 bottle of nicotine would cost $13.56 under Inslee’s proposal. The tax would apply to other vaping products as well, including parts that don’t contain nicotine. For example, the price of a $40 battery for an e-cigarette would increase to $78.

The governor says he is seeking the vaping tax primarily as a way to deter teenagers and adolescents from using the products. Preliminary results from the 2014 Healthy Youth Survey show that teens in Washington are using e-cigarettes twice as much as conventional cigarettes.

“This rate of vaping among our children is alarming,” Inslee said. “It’s too easy and it’s too cheap for teenagers to buy these products.”

David Sutton, a spokesperson for Altria Group, the parent company for Marlboro cigarettes and Copenhagen tobacco chew, says the governor should wait on findings from the Federal Drug Administration before taxing e-cigarettes.

Altria recently entered the e-cigarette market by acquiring the vaping companies NuMark and Green Smoke. He says the products shouldn’t be treated like cigarettes because they aren’t cigarettes.

“Let’s be clear: cigarettes are dangerous,” Sutton said. “They’re addictive and they cause serious diseases; we all know that. (Vaping), even though it mimics a smoking experience, is a very different product category entirely.”

Sutton said Altria favors ways to keep vaping products out of teens’ hands without making the products more expensive for adults. He advocates for laws that put child-resistant packaging on the liquid nicotine, and prevents teens from purchasing the products at retailers by checking ID and having over-the-counter purchases.

“That to us is the effective way to make sure the product is available to the adult consumer, without excessive taxation, at the same time while ensuring that if you’re 16, you can’t get access to the product at retail,” he said.

Sutton said the product offers an alternative to cigarettes. He notes that vapor products do not contain tobacco and don’t burn the thousands of chemicals cigarettes burn. Secondhand smoke is also not an issue with vaping, he says.

Others contend that the state shouldn’t wait to act.

Dr. David Ricker, who specializes in pediatric pulmonology at Tacoma’s Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital, says parents often ask him about the safety of the products. The health risks posed by e-cigarettes and vapor products are relatively unknown, and the FDA is doing a study as it considers how to regulate the product. But Ricker says enough is known to discourage use by minors.

“It’s still a nicotine-delivery device,” he said. “And nicotine is extremely addictive.”

Ricker pointed to research released by the New England Journal of Medicine in January that indicates that e-cigarettes can produce high amounts of formaldehyde when used at a high voltage setting. Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen.

“Nobody really knows what would be the effect of inhaling that much formaldehyde into your lungs on a regular basis,” said Ricker, who is a supporter of Inslee’s proposal. “We could assume that it wouldn’t be good.”

Opponents such as Sutton say a tax hike will drive adult users to look for other ways of buying the products, including on the Internet and in states where the products aren’t heavily taxed.

Rosso said shops like Tony’s Variety Store might lose sales if the state taxes vaping products, but he doesn’t think the added cost would send smokers back to cigarettes. Most of the customers who buy vape products from Tony’s are seeking an alternative to cigarettes, he said, and that trend won’t change even if they have to look toward other avenues to purchase them.

Ricker says there are better ways to quit smoking cigarettes than vaping.

“There’s lots of organizations,” he said. “There’s patches, there’s gums, there’s medications that have a better track record and are known to be safer.”