Utah’s governor wants to tax vaping at the same rate as cigarettes, citing a growing use among teens

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Austin Healy, one of the owners of Peak Vapor in Taylorsville, Monday, Dec. 17, 2018.

A puff on a vape pen and a wad of chewing tobacco both deliver a dose of nicotine, but only one of these products gives Utah tax collectors their fix.

That’s because the 86 percent tax that applies to products like chewing and pipe tobacco doesn’t extend to electronic cigarettes, devices with a surging popularity among Utah’s youth. According to Gov. Gary Herbert, it’s time for vaping consumers to pay up.

Herbert’s budget proposal, released earlier this month, recommends taxing electronic cigarettes like traditional tobacco products, in part out of concern about increased youth vaping, which is rising nationwide.

“Use of electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes) by youth has grown at an alarming rate,” the governor’s budget documents state. “The governor recommends treating electronic cigarette liquid, devices and paraphernalia the same as traditional tobacco products under Utah’s tax code.”

Surveys show vaping rates among Utah students — in grades 8, 10 and 12 — shot up from 5.8 percent in 2013 to 11.1 percent in 2017, according to the state’s Health Department. Research is limited on the potential health effects of e-cigarettes, but the U.S. surgeon general has warned that the products can contain potentially harmful ultrafine particles and heavy metals.

Surgeon General Jerome Adams recently said federal officials should take “aggressive steps” to curb childhood use of e-cigarettes, with new surveys showing a boom in high school vaping, the Associated Press reported.

Utah Rep. Paul Ray has fought unsuccessfully for years to expand the state’s tobacco tax to cover e-cigarettes and plans to reintroduce his legislation in the 2019 session, which begins in January. Ray believes his measure has a better chance of passage with the governor’s backing.

Ray, R-Clearfield, hopes increasing taxes on vaping products will help contain the spread of e-cigarette use.

“My daughter walked into the bathroom in high school yesterday, and there’s a bunch of kids in there vaping,” he said recently. “It’s at epidemic levels.”

By offering e-cigarette liquid flavors like root beer and bubblegum, vape businesses are marketing to young people, he argues.

Not so, says Austin Healy, a co-owner of Peak Vapor in Taylorsville. There are plenty of adults with a sweet tooth.

“Does Paul Ray enjoy a soda here and there? Does he enjoy a root beer?” he said.

It’s illegal for anyone younger than 18 to vape, and Healy said his shop takes pains to make sure it doesn’t sell to anyone underage.

“It’s definitely a concern that youth are getting access to these products, because it’s not intended for them,” said Healy, who serves on the board for the Utah Smoke Free Association, a group that advocates for the vaping industry. “We’re not trying to fling this stuff to children or kids or teenagers. We truly just want to help people looking for another alternative [to smoking].”

Healy argues the products he sells shouldn’t be subject to the state’s tax on tobacco (they’re already covered by the state sales tax, he says) and are more similar to cigarette alternatives like Nicorette gum.

He said expanding the tobacco tax to include e-cigarette products would cause a “huge loss of jobs” in the vaping industry.

There are 263 vape shops in Utah, not including convenience stores or grocery stores that carry electronic cigarettes on their shelves, according to the Utah State Tax Commission.

The issue of tobacco use is personal for Ray, who was born with a heart defect and says his mother smoked two packs of cigarettes a day while pregnant with him. He has undergone four open-heart surgeries to address the congenital problem, he said.

Now, he’s concerned vaping will get a whole new generation hooked on nicotine.

Ray said his bill would direct revenues from the e-cigarette tax in part toward local health departments, which conduct sting operations to catch vape shops that are selling to minors. State legislative analysts determined that Ray’s bill earlier this year would’ve generated about $2 million for local health departments and pumped an additional $5 million into the state’s general fund.