Vermont is currently considering a new bill that would nearly double the cost of e-cigarettes in the state, giving it one of the steepest vaping taxes in the country.
The bill, which was introduced by Representative George Till (D), would lump e-cigarettes, as well as vape pens, mods, e-liquids, and even nicotine-free e-juice, under the state's tobacco tax laws. Vermont's 92 percent tobacco tax rate puts it at one of the highest in the US. Minnesota currently has the highest e-cigarette tax rate at 95 percent, but that does not apply to nicotine-free juice or empty vape pens and mods; if Vermont passes this bill, the state would arguably be home to the most severe vape tax in the country. It was approved by Vermont's House on Wednesday.
"Without a doubt, 100 percent I think it would really alienate a lot of the lower income population for whom it will be easier to just purchase cigarettes," Kathleen Hambleton, a Vermont vaper who testified at a committee meeting on the bill Wednesday, told me over the phone. "A 92 percent increase would be a huge, huge difficulty to me in terms of affordability."
Hambleton, like a majority of vapers, used to smoke. A lot. The 40-year-old nurse told me right before switching to e-cigarettes, she was smoking 80 cigarettes a day, had asthma, high blood pressure, and had received multiple surgeries to remove growths from her throat. Since switching to vaping, she has reduced her nicotine levels, her blood pressure is normal, and she no longer needs an inhaler for her asthma, she said.
Though anecdotal, this kind of story is common in the vaping world, and studies have shown it is a potential way for smokers to quit cigarettes. Though not as healthy as going cold turkey, the current evidence shows vaping to be as much as 95 percent less harmful than cigarettes, which is why many in the industry think e-cigarettes ought to be treated differently than other tobacco products.
"What I have gathered, the last few times I've been [to the State House], is that they still don't seem to believe first hand that they work and people are actually quitting smoking," said Gaetano Putignano, a Vermont vape shop owner who also quit smoking by switching to e-cigarettes and has testified for this bill multiple times.
The biggest concern legislators have expressed is the growing popularity of vaping among teens and young adults. E-cigarette use among youth in the US is on the rise, and Vermont is no exception. In 2015, 30 percent of Vermont high schoolers reported trying e-cigarettes, compared to 21 percent who reported smoking cigarettes, according to the state's Youth Risk Behavior Survey.
"Frankly, the numbers are pretty frightening," said Rep. Till when introducing the bill. "When 30 percent of your high school students are trying these things, it seems pretty obvious we have a problem."
Like I said before: though vaping is less harmful than smoking, no one (even those in the vaping industry) believes it to be harmless, which is why legislators are concerned about young people choosing to vape. Multiple studies have shown that raising taxes on tobacco reduces smoking rates in youth, but it's not totally clear if raising vaping taxes would have a similar effect. (One study suggests it would just push teens to start smoking instead.) Vaping products are also readily available online, meaning a local tax-hike might not make as big of an impact. So is nearly doubling the price of vaping products a useful strategy, even if it hurts smokers trying to quit?
"These aren't healthy products, they aren't good for you. But they aren't tobacco," said Rep. Matthew Trieber (D). "In some ways we're treating these worse than we're treating tobacco products."
Trieber pointed out that while some tobacco-related product (like pipes, for example) aren't taxed at the rate of cigarettes, all vaping-related products (like empty vape pens) would be taxed at this rate under the new bill. This would even include vape juice that contains no nicotine, which opens up a lot of confusion. The main ingredients in e-liquid, besides nicotine, are propylene glycol, vegetable glycerin, and flavorings. These ingredients are also found in lots of other food products, like some ice creams, which raises the question: How exactly would a nicotine-free e-liquid be defined, identified, and taxed?
Trieber said he was in favor of taxing vaping products, but at a lower rate than cigarettes, until there's a better understanding of vaping's effects. He said there are also other ways to curb the use among youth, like banning the sale of vaping products to minors (already in effect in Vermont) and prohibiting vaping in public.
"That's a good step towards not showing kids that this is an acceptable behavior," Trieber said.
Right now, the bill will be sent to the state Senate, but since it was passed after Vermont's cross-over date, it will only be brought to the floor if it's specifically plucked out by the Senate from the rules committee agenda. Whether or not that happens depends entirely on the Senate's eagerness to push the bill forward.