SALT LAKE CITY — A crowd of students packed a committee room, an overflow room and other parts of the Capitol on Thursday to show support for a controversial bill to tax electronic cigarettes.
But the bill's run at the 2016 Utah Legislature likely came to an end when the House Revenue and Taxation Committee recommended it be studied over the summer.
HB333 called for an 86 percent tax on the manufacturer's price of e-cigarettes.
Bill sponsor Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, said the revenue collected from the tax would have been used to put school nurses or athletic trainers in rural schools.
Nearly 200 high school students from 10 schools showed up at the committee meeting to show their support for the bill.
Ray commended their active advocacy, and Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, called them "a dream come true."
Opponents of the bill, however, accused Ray of using the students as "political props."
"We don't agree with using children as political props, and today's tactics by Rep. Ray unfortunately, quite frankly, represent an entirely new low that we haven't seen yet in the industry," said Shilo Platts from the Utah Chapter of the Smoke-Free Trade Alternatives Association.
Ray said the students approached him about supporting the bill.
Cade Hyde, Davis High School's student body president and chairman of Students Against Electronic Vaping, said he became involved with the bill after seeing friends start using e-cigarettes and moving to harder drugs.
Hyde created SAEV, wich has gained the support of high school students and city councils around the state.
McGyver Clark, co-chairman of SAEV, said nicotine addiction "is not an adult problem anymore."
"If my two little brothers in seventh grade and fifth grade have seen electronic cigarettes in their schools and (seen them) confiscated and they know what they are and how they work, then that's a problem," Clark said.
Ray said 3 percent of polled eighth-, 10th- and 12th-grade students in the state smoke cigarettes, while 10.5 percent — or 22,000 students — use e-cigarettes.
E-cigarettes are illegal for anyone under age 19 to use because they are classified as a tobacco product, but students are finding ways to circumvent the system.
Ray said he believes imposing an 86 percent tax on the manufacturer's price of e-cigarette items would deter minors from purchasing and using the products.
"We're a low-income group," Hyde said, eliciting chuckles from the group.
Students who use e-cigarettes, he said, would think twice about buying them if they were more expensive.
Vaping advocates strongly opposed the tax, saying e-cigarettes help adults quit smoking.
"An 86 percent tax would leave adults with no viable alternative to cigarettes," Platts said.
The Utah Chapter of the Smoke-Free Trade Alternatives Association Platts does not support use of e-cigarettes by youths, he said.
"These are adult products, and they are intended for adult smokers," Platts said.
Brad Parsons, owner of Vapor Lock in Layton, testified that e-cigarettes was the reason he stopped smoking.
Parsons expressed concern that vape shops would go out of business as consumers would turn to the Internet to purchase their products tax-free.
Rep. Jon Stanard, R-St. George, recommended hitting tobacco law violators with penalties similar to those of underage drinking, such as suspending a minor's driver's license.
Briscoe, a former high school teacher, said he believes enforcement would be nearly impossible unless schools were in a "police state."
"We are talking addictions," he said, banging his fist on the table. "You've got kids up here testifying to you that they've got kids using this in elementary school, and we're going to go take away their driver's license?"
Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, suggested sending the bill to be studied over the summer.
"This is targeting kids," Ivory said. "This tax is not going to solve that problem. I think we need to address the root of the issue."
The committee voted 7-5 to recommend the bill for further study.