Email your state lawmaker, get entered to win free stuff.
That’s one of the lobbying techniques used this year by some stores that sell electronic cigarettes, which vaporize liquid nicotine to mimic the sensation of smoking tobacco. In a contest promoted by a pro-vaping group, customers who emailed legislators to oppose new taxes on vapor products were entered into a drawing for prizes, including free nicotine liquid every month for a year.
Other vape shops told customers that if they emailed or called their lawmakers from inside a participating store, they’d get a 10 or 20 percent discount on their purchase of vapor products or e-liquids.
It’s an unusual type of lobbying that has frustrated some some state lawmakers who are looking to tax and regulate the vaping industry.
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“I don’t think they’re being completely transparent,” said Rep. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver. “I had someone who said, ‘I’m in Bubba’s Smoke Shop’ — a smoke shop in my district — ‘and I’m getting a discount for calling you.’ And I go, ‘Really?’”
Yet a spokeswoman for the state’s Public Disclosure Commission (PDC) said providing discounts or giveaways in exchange for people contacting their lawmakers isn’t against the law — it’s just something the agency hasn’t really seen before.
"It’s a unique approach,” said PDC spokeswoman Lori Anderson. “We haven’t seen prizes offered in exchange for some sort of action, but it’s not wrong. It’s not illegal.”
Normally, grassroots lobbying consists mainly of collecting petition signatures or placing a newspaper or radio ad urging citizens to contact their lawmakers about a proposal, Anderson said.
But the Pink Lung Brigade, a pro-vaping group founded by the owners of two South Sound vapor shops, tried something different this year. The group put out word on its website and its Facebook page that anyone who emailed lawmakers to oppose proposed vaping taxes and regulations would be entered in a raffle to win prizes.
More than 20 local vape shops and manufacturers contributed prizes to be part of the raffle, according to the Pink Lung Brigade’s Facebook page. A few shops offered in-store discounts to people who participated in the contest, which the organization dubbed “Kill Bill.”
It’s not clear whether or not the contest should have been reported as grassroots lobbying, which must be disclosed to the PDC if it is part of a coordinated campaign and exceeds certain spending levels. Neither the Pink Lung Brigade or its hired lobbyist have reported the raffles, discounts and prizes as grassroots lobbying expenditures this year.
The PDC is now contacting the Pink Lung Brigade and another group, the Washington Vape Association, and asking them to tally up the value of the discounts and giveaways contributed by their members. If the value of the in-kind contributions exceeds $700 in a month or $1,400 in three months, the agency will ask each group’s lobbyist to report the activity as grassroots lobbying, Anderson said.
At least one lawmaker thinks the groups’ failure to report the activity violated state law.
Rep. Gerry Pollet, who has been the prime sponsor of multiple bills this session that would tax and regulate vapor products, said most lawmakers who received calls and emails this year opposing e-cigarette taxes had no idea that the people contacting them were getting something in return.
“The weight you give to an email or a phone call changes when you discover the person who is contacting you is doing it because they’re going to get a discount,” said Pollet, who said he has received thousands of emails and phone calls about vaping bills since January.
Pollet’s latest proposal to regulate vaping would impose a 45 percent excise tax on nicotine liquid and e-cigarette cartridges at the wholesale level, while creating new labeling rules and policies aimed at keeping products away from minors.
Pollet, D-Seattle, said he thinks it is “fundamentally wrong to offer a financial inducement for someone try to influence legislation.”
“If this is allowed to continue, the public interest will suffer when every business that has an interest in Olympia starts buying customers’ lobbying on behalf of a bill,” he said.
Other lawmakers who have received a large share of emails and calls from vaping advocates said they find the practice of offering incentives repugnant, but that they don’t think it’s illegal.
“I find it incredibly distasteful and borderline inappropriate, but I don’t think it pushes the bounds of democracy itself,” said Rep. Reuven Carlyle, a Seattle Democrat who chairs the House Finance Committee. “It’s fine.”
While an earlier proposal from Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee to impose a 95 percent tax on vapor products didn’t move forward, Carlyle said leaders of the Democratic-controlled state House are still hoping to pass the more modest tax recently proposed by Pollet. Carlyle’s committee is scheduled to vote on the proposal Thursday.
But lawmakers are running out of time to address the issue. The state’s second overtime session ends Saturday, and the Legislature must approve a new two-year operating budget by June 30 to avoid a partial government shutdown – something that is a higher priority right now than passing vaping legislation, Carlyle said.
Marc Jarrett, co-founder of the Pink Lung Brigade and part-owner of Banzai Vapors in Lakewood, said he doesn’t think states should adopt new vaping regulations until after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has adopted federal guidelines for the products. The FDA is still finalizing new rules to govern e-cigarettes and vapor products.
Any new taxes on vapor products will also discourage smokers from using vaping as a means to help them quit smoking tobacco, Jarrett said.
“Our stance is sales tax is enough. We don’t appreciate any sin taxes or regressive taxes on our industry that target low-income smokers,” Jarrett said.
Banzai Vapors, Jarrett’s company, offered a raffle prize of free e-liquid every month for a year as part of the contest promoted by the Pink Lung Brigade.
Jarrett said Tuesday that he wouldn’t discuss the Pink Lung Brigade’s lobbying efforts in detail, mainly because the group hadn’t yet had a chance to talk with the PDC about possible reporting concerns.
“We want to make certain we are doing everything we are supposed to be doing within the confines of the process and the law,” Jarrett said.
Not all members of the vaping community condone offering discounts and freebies in exchange for contacting politicians, though — even if they share the goal of blocking tax proposals they say would cripple their industry.
"I do not like it,” said Joe Baba, chairman of the Washington Vape Association. “The phone calls should be coming in based on a strong opinion by the consumer that they feel the proposed vaping legislation is bad for the industry, and bad for them personally and bad for the state. Not because they got an incentive to make the phone call.”
Baba said he never instructed members of the Washington Vape Association to offer incentives to encourage people to contact lawmakers. From what he’s seen so far, such activity “is very spotty and minimal,” he said.
“The vast majority of stores have not been involved in anything like that.”