Students rally around Utah lawmaker’s plan to tax e-cigarettes, saying it will curb the youth vaping epidemic

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) McGyver Clark of Students Against Electronic Vaping speaks at a news conference on the current status of House Bill 252, Electronic Cigarette and Other Nicotine Product Amendments. Wednesday Feb. 27, 2019 in Salt Lake City.

Between 2013 and 2017, the number of Utah youth who were experimenting with or hooked on vaping more that doubled, health data show.

McGyver Clark, a Brigham Young University student advocate, says he’s afraid to imagine what those numbers will look like in Utah one, two or three years down the road if lawmakers don’t do something to halt the trend.

“From the National Youth Tobacco Survey, 1 in 5 students [is] addicted,” Clark said Wednesday. “It’s an epidemic.”

That’s why Clark and other members of Students Against Electronic Vaping are pressing Utah legislators this year to pass an 86 percent tax on e-cigarettes, a proposal they believe will dramatically cut youth vaping.

Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, is sponsoring legislation this session that would tax vape products, a change estimated to generate a net $14.6 million for the state in fiscal 2020 and $23.6 million the following budget year.

Of that, $2 million each year would go to local health departments to design tobacco cessation programs and for enforcement efforts. Ray said he also plans to amend the bill to direct some of the revenues toward provider increases for Medicaid expansion.

“It’s a health issue, so I wanted it to stay in health,” Ray said of the funds that would be generated by his proposal.

Clark and Cade Hyde started Students Against Electronic Vaping (SAEV) several years ago as high schoolers in Davis County and have been lobbying since then for a tax on e-cigarettes. During a Wednesday afternoon news conference, they aired their frustration that their efforts have so far hit a wall in the Legislature.

“We are outraged that nothing has happened over these past four years that SAEV and Representative Paul Ray have been pushing for a bill to tax electronic cigarettes,” Hyde said. “We know that this tax is a solution. An 86 percent tax is the way to decrease youth use of electronic cigarettes.”

But Ray says he’s optimistic that this bill will succeed this year, with a new crop of freshman lawmakers in the Legislature and signs that Gov. Gary Herbert is on board. The budget proposal Herbert released in December recommended taxing electronic cigarettes like traditional tobacco products, in part to curb youth vaping.

Ray’s bill, HB252, isn’t the only tobacco-related bill under consideration this session. On Tuesday, a House panel voted favorably on HB 324, a bill sponsored by Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, aimed at raising the smoking age in Utah from 19 to 21. Clark testified in support of the measure, and Ray said he supports the concept, although he’s concerned that Eliason’s version contains pre-emption language that could restrict local governments from enacting their own tobacco rules.

Another bill, HB274, sponsored by Rep. Jennifer Dailey-Provost, D-Salt Lake City, would specify that shops selling flavored tobacco products should be considered retail tobacco specialty businesses under the law.

The SAEV members said taken together, these three bills could go a long way toward tackling the problem of youth vaping in Utah.

Ray said he expects his bill will be heard in the House Revenue and Taxation Committee early next week.