SALT LAKE CITY — The latest group of people joining the debate over e-cigarettes isn't old enough to vote yet.
"Adults in our community and state aren't seeing the problem," said McGyver Clark, a Davis High School senior who is a member of Students Against Electronic Vaping, or SAEV. "We see the problem, and that's why we're getting involved."
With three bills in the Utah Legislature taking aim at the e-cigarette industry, lawmakers are turning to students to weigh in on the controversial product that has surpassed traditional cigarettes in popularity among teens.
Cade Hyde, student body president at Davis High, said he started SAEV after a lobbyist working with Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, told him about Ray's bill.
HB333 proposes a 86.5 percent tax on e-cigarette products and nicotine inhalers. The revenue would go toward funding school nurses and athletic trainers in rural communities.
Hyde said members of SAEV have "all seen friends that have become addicted to nicotine."
He described a friend who tried e-cigarettes in ninth grade, drawn by the billowing clouds of vapor they emit. Hyde said his friend soon became addicted to nicotine and went on to try harder drugs.
"Kids really see this as a problem," he said.
Rep. Raymond Ward, R-Bountiful, is also sponsoring legislation that would tax e-cigarettes and put the revenue toward Medicaid expansion.
Another lawmaker is attempting to raise the tobacco and e-cigarette age limit from 19 to 21.
On Wednesday, more than 200 teens who are members of a statewide youth anti-tobacco advocacy group called OUTRAGE! rallied in the Capitol rotunda in support of the bill.
The Utah Tobacco Free Alliance co-hosted the rally with the students, using the hashtag #NotTobaccosGuineaPig.
Students shared statistics about e-cigarettes from a podium as mascots dressed as guinea pigs walked around.
The sponsor of the bill, Rep. Kraig Powell, R-Heber City, has proposed similar legislation before.
But he said the engagement of organizations like the American Lung Association — and students — would be key to passing the bill this year.
"We have the kids actually contacting their own legislators and saying, 'Hey, we don't want to have this quote-unquote ‘freedom’ to smoke when we're 19 or 20," Powell said.
He spoke at the rally along with Rep. Brad Daw, R-Orem.
Jeff Stier, from the conservative National Center for Public Policy Research think tank, questioned whether lawmakers were using students to advance their agenda as a prop.
“I don’t think that was ethical, to bring in kids," Stier said.
"They took them out of school and gave them food, and said ‘support us’ and they said, 'OK, we’re here. We’ll do whatever the adults tell us,'" he added.
Stier, the Utah Smoke-Free Association and the Utah chapter of the Smoke Free Alternatives Trade Association oppose taxing e-cigarette products.
Stier argued that e-cigarettes are "public health heroes" because they help adults quit smoking.
"These products are dramatically, dramatically, dramatically less harmful than cigarettes," he said.
“If the point of a sin tax is to discourage behavior, why would you put a sin tax on e-cigarettes, which are the alternative to smoking?" Stier added.
Proponents of the vaping industry agree that children should not use e-cigarettes, and they follow the law when it comes to underage buyers, Stier argued.
“Our point of view is that you shouldn’t dramatically increase the taxes on e-cigarettes, which are predominantly used by adults who use them to quit smoking," he said.
Denitza Blagev, a pulmonologist at Intermountain Medical Center in Murray, said it's true that e-cigarettes contain less nicotine on average than traditional cigarettes.
E-cigarettes also don't burn tobacco, which is what causes the lung diseases and cancers associated with traditional tobacco use. Instead, e-cigarettes heat up liquid cartridges that contain nicotine and turn it into vapor.
But nicotine is still highly addictive, and e-cigarette vapor contains unknown chemicals, including formaldehyde, Blagev said.
She said she's concerned that e-cigarettes are "normalizing smoking for a whole new generation."
"E-cigarettes are not advertised as tobacco cessation," Blagev said.
E-cigarettes ads tend to be colorful, flashy and filled with celebrity endorsements, she said, hearkening back to the early days of cigarette advertising when tobacco companies targeted teens and adolescents.
Blagev said e-cigarettes should be regulated either as medical products or as tobacco products.
Gov. Gary Herbert said he opposes the proposed e-cigarette tax because "it would be a tax increase."
"We ought to concentrate on prevention, and I think there ought to be a legitimate concern for all of us about this increasing use of e-cigarettes, particularly by our young people," Herbert said.
The governor said if an e-cigarette tax passes, he will consider the bill to "see if it's the right thing to do at the right time."
SAEV students said they believe e-cigarettes need to be more strictly regulated.
Carson Robb, a junior who volunteers at Kaysville Youth Court, said underage e-cigarette violations have doubled since he began volunteering two years ago. Most youth offenders said they were able to get their e-cigarettes from vape shops, Robb said.
Hyde disagreed with accusations that students were being coached by lawmakers and said teens are passionate about the issue.
Opening a binder filled with SAEV materials, he pointed to a list of high schools, city councils and other organizations that have signaled support for SAEV's mission.
Hyde said about 30 schools and 16 city councils — including Salt Lake City — have signed resolutions supporting Ray's bill.
He was getting ready to head to a city council meeting in Taylorsville on Wednesday night.
"This was all my choice," Hyde said. "No adults are making us do this."
Contributing: Emily Larson, Lisa Riley Roche
Email: [email protected]