SALT LAKE CITY — A Utah lawmaker's efforts to make e-cigarettes subject to the same tax as other tobacco products took a hit Wednesday in a House committee.
With just six days left in the legislative session, Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, introduced HB372, calling for e-cigarettes, candy-like dissolvable tobacco and other nicotine products to be defined and taxed as tobacco.
Under the proposed law, such products would be required to be sold in locked cabinets and behind the counter, and people under age 19 would be prohibited from entering tobacco shops.
"We have some bad actors out there who are using marketing ploys to attract minors," Ray said. "You can't tell the candy from the tobacco when you look at the packaging."
Vapor users, vapor vendors and their employees lined the walls as Ray presented the bill to the House Health and Human Services Committee. Ultimately, the committee supported a watered-down version of the bill that would make only refills for e-cigarettes taxable as tobacco products, not the actual vapor devices that run as high as $400 to $600.
"This tax rate is quite high," said Aaron Frasier, the founder of Utah Vapors, a group selling e-cigarettes to help people gradually decrease their nicotine use. "This would tax all of our 15 retail shops out entirely, leading to a loss of revenue for the state, unemployment taxes lost and send people back to smoking cigarettes."
"Vaping has helped me quite smoking when nothing else would," said Suzanne Anderson, an employee of one of the vendors. "Why put an 85 percent tax increase on this?"
Rep. Brian Greene, R-Pleasant Grove, said he agreed with the underlying intent of the bill but called the proposed tax increase too harsh.
"I don't think we need to pull this into the tax realm in order to enforce the prohibition against selling to minors," he said. "We've beat up on these people enough."
Greene proposed a substitute to the bill, which took out all language that called for a tax on e-cigarettes and other products. The substitute did not pass.
Greeen was one of two members of the committee to vote against the revised bill, which was forwarded to the full House with a favorable recommendation, 7-2.
Christy Jones, a compliance check officer at the Weber-Morgan Health Department, said teens often purchase candy from smoke shops because they are more convenient or cheaper.
"They are going in, they are being exposed to the advertising and marketing, and it can have a negative effect," Jones said.
"What do you think people buy in a smoke shop?" Ray asked. "It's things they can't get anywhere else. They buy spice and bath salts and other drug paraphernalia. It's no place for kids."
Others spoke in support of the bill.
"We all know the dangers of tobacco use," said Dr. Charles Pruitt, an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Utah. "The studies have been done, the data are in and it's conclusive: Tobacco use can kill us. Kids rely on us to give them the proper information to guide them wisely, and this bill helps accomplish that."
Dr. Tom Metcalf, a retired pediatrician, said preventive efforts must be focused on adolescents and adults.
"Adolescence is a time of rapid development," Metcalf said. "Adolescents are particularly susceptible to peer pressure, social pressure and media. Are you going to protect the children and adolescents who are my patients or leave them to the mercies of the tobacco industry?"
Despite the lateness of the bill's introduction, Ray said he believes he can get it through the House and the Senate.
"I've done it in the past," he said. "The key will be getting it prioritized for leadership."