It's time to regulate and tax e-cigarettes

Amid all the legislative debate over the size of this year’s Permanent Fund dividend, the amount of state support for schools and loud pleas from communities across Alaska for more money for docks, sewage treatment plants, roads and building repairs, there is a bill that draws only a few people to its hearings.

Senate Bill 45, sponsored by Kodiak Senator Gary Stevens, would bring vaping products, also known as e-cigarettes, under the state’s tobacco tax and regulation statutes.

Stevens and other supporters have been trying for years to win legislative approval to tax e-cigs, without success. Whether lawmakers can agree to pass the bill in the final few weeks of the legislative session is debatable, but it’s time to adopt the measure.

As amended in the Senate Finance Committee last week, the measure would impose a 45% tax on the wholesale price of vaping sticks, pens and e-cigarettes, and a 75% tax on any separate liquid cartridges used to fill or refill the devices. The original bill proposed a 75% tax on everything. The 45% rate on devices appears a compromise, and one worth accepting. It’s less than the 55% tax collected in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, and less than the state’s 75% tax on loose tobacco and cigars. The state tax on actual cigarettes is substantial, at $2 a pack.

The main driver of the legislation, however, is not the $1.5 million or so that the e-cig tax would raise for the state each year. It’s about raising the minimum age in Alaska for smoking or vaping from 19 to 21 to match federal law, and it’s about health — raising the cost to deter use of vaping products, particularly by young people increasingly drawn to the flavors and social attractiveness of smoking without a match or lighter.

“They are a grooming tool, grooming kids to accept, like and become dependent on smoking and nicotine,” the Mat-Su Health Foundation wrote to legislators this year and last year. “Recent research indicates that adolescents and teens who try e-cigs are much more likely than other youth to progress to traditional cigarettes.”

The foundation noted that the rate of use of e-cigs among high school students in Alaska is above the national average.

That is not a number to be proud of.

The latest version of the bill includes other compromises, such as dropping a proposed ban on flavored vape products, reducing the penalty for underage smoking of real tobacco or vaping a liquid, and directing the court system to treat an underage violation the same as a traffic ticket: Pay the fine, learn the lesson, no need to appear before a judge.

“We have arrived late to the party,” Stevens testified last week. “The more time passes by, the more Alaskans will be addicted,” particularly young people.

That’s a good argument for passing the bill.

—Wrangell Sentinel


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