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Teens from anti-tobacco groups said during an event Wednesday at the Utah state Capitol that they support two similar legislative proposals to raise the tax on electronic cigarettes because it could reduce the number of youth using the products.
Both recently introduced bills by Republican lawmakers would add about an 86 percent tax to e-cigarettes. The legislative proposal from Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, would send $10 million to $20 million a year from the tax toward rural health programs, while the plan from Rep. Raymond Ward, R-Bountiful, would send money from the tax to pay for an expanded Medicaid program.
Nearly twice as many Utah youth used e-cigarettes in 2015 compared with 2013, while adult use of the products has remained fairly steady, state officials said.
E-cigarettes are the cheaper alternative to smoking, said Jay Winkler, a 17-year-old from Tooele County who spoke during the event. He said they are very popular at his high school.
Neither proposal has been debated in a House of Representatives committee meeting.
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said Wednesday that he's concerned that more people, particularly minors, are using e-cigarettes. He said a tax on the devices is a natural progression from the current policy of taxing tobacco. The tax tries to discourage people from using what can be a public health hazard.
The governor said he still needs to review any specific legislation that lands on his desk before determining if he'd approve it.
Individuals critical of the tax increase also attended the event, holding signs behind presenters that said, "I vape, I vote." They said they worry that a tax increase would hurt adults using e-cigarettes in efforts to quit smoking cigarettes, while youths could simply find unregulated access to the products.
E-cigarettes are much healthier than cigarettes and instrumental in helping adults to quit smoking, said Jeff Stier of the National Center for Public Policy Research, a research organization that supports incorporating free market solutions into public policy.
"There is a risk of kids using them no matter what the laws are, but there are tremendous benefits to the public health with these products," he said.
Other states, such as New Jersey and Ohio, have attempted to pass similar pieces of legislation that ultimately failed, Stier said.
E-cigarettes are battery-powered electronic vaporizers that heat liquid nicotine into an inhalable mist. They began to appear in the U.S. in late 2006, but marketing has increased exponentially in recent years.
Dr. Sarah Woolsey, a family physician from Salt Lake City and member of the Utah Tobacco Free Alliance, said doctors and scientists don't know all of the possible effects from using e-cigarettes. During the event she referenced studies showing that the vapor has toxins and carcinogens in it.
"We don't know the health effects, but we know they're not harmless," she said.