If some Washington state lawmakers have their way, e-cigarettes could soon be subjected to a 95 percent sales tax imposed on conventional tobacco products and producers would be required to list ingredients on labels. Flavorings and online sales would also be illegal.
The new bill, introduced on Monday, counts as part of an effort across the U.S. to address concerns about e-cigarettes’ health drawbacks and popularity among teenagers. If it passes, the Washington e-cigarette bill would establish the nation’s toughest restrictions on the product, a move that takes the debate between public health advocates and e-cigarette proponents to the next level.
“Many people, particularly teenagers, are being misled into believing these items are safe,” state Representative Gerry Pollet (D), a sponsor of the Washington bill, told Reuters. Pollet co-authored the bipartisan bill with state Rep. Paul Harris (R). “You deserve to know what toxic and carcinogenic chemicals are in e-cigarettes,” the Democrat said.
More than three dozen states have passed laws prohibiting minors from using e-cigarettes. Federal government officials and legislators in other states are also mulling over bans on flavoring and the use of the product in public spaces. Lawmakers in California and Delaware, for instance, want to add e-cigarettes to a list of tobacco products that cannot be used in public spaces.
But moving to impose taxes on e-cigarettes is still rare. So far, only North Carolina and Minnesota have done so. The expected tax income from Washington’s proposed law stands to be more than $96 million over the next four years.
Since appearing on the market, e-cigarette use has more than doubled among U.S. adults between 2010 and 2013. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that more than 20 million U.S. adults have tried e-cigarettes at least once.
The battery-operated pens, known colloquially as “vapes,” don’t contain tobacco. Instead, users inhale nicotine from tobacco plants in the form of an aerosol, creating by a heating element that vaporizes e-liquid — a mixture of propylene, glycol, glycerin, nicotine and flavorings.
While proponents contend that e-cigarettes serve as an effective smoking cessation tool, research about nicotine’s addictive qualities has challenged that notion. The product’s popularity has waned somewhat among U.S. adults in recent years, due in part to concerns about safety and lack of regulation. A report published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine last year showed that the number of people who believe e-cigarettes are safer than traditional tobacco products has dropped 20 percentage points.
E-cigarette opponents worry the products may encourage teenagers to experiment with cigarettes. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association last November confirmed this risk. Critics rail against marketing agencies that specifically target kids by putting billions of dollars behind the product in the form of advertising and celebrity endorsements. In August, an agency report highlighted that more than 250,000 young people who never smoked a cigarette used e-cigarettes in 2013, a figure that more than tripled within three years.
“I’ve treated so many adults who are desperate — desperate — to get off tobacco. They all started as kids,” CDC Director Tom Frieden told the L.A. Times last April. “I see the industry getting another generation of our kids addicted. To me, as a physician, when 1.78 million of our high school kids have tried an e-cigarette and a lot of them are using them regularly … that’s like watching someone harm hundreds of thousands of children.”
While the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has proposed some e-cigarette regulations, their enactment is far from guaranteed. Fiscal conservatives and e-cigarette producers worry that some of the FDA’s provisions — particularly pre-market reviews for proper labeling — would take an average of 5,000 hours and cost more than $300,000.
FDA officials also admit that the scientific uncertainty about e-cigarettes complicates efforts to regulate the product. The Tobacco Control Act of 2009 allows the FDA to impose regulations on specific tobacco products, such as smokeless tobacco, if the agency “deems” it to be worthy of that action. In the absence of information about e-cigarettes’ long-term effects, it’s harder for officials to take those steps.
Experts extol the strategy that states have taken on — limitations on youth sales, requirements for warning labels, and bans on the contamination of the product. Those reforms may not prove to be enough, however, in regulating e-cigarettes in a manner similar to traditional tobacco products. Experts say that a parity in regulations would come into effect once e-cigarettes are considered to be tobacco products.
For now, the debate about Washington state’s e-cigarette bill rages on in the public sphere and legislature. The vaping business community — comprised of owners of more than 100 e-cigarette shops and small vaping device manufacturers — spoke out against the bill during a hearing earlier this week. If the bill passes in the assembly in the upcoming weeks, challenges may remain in the Republican-led Senate.