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Amid sometimes-rancorous debate, a proposal to impose an 86.5 percent tax on e-cigarettes went up in smoke on Thursday.
As both sides accused each other of dirty tricks and as bus loads of high school students crowded the Capitol to support the tax the House Revenue and Taxation Committee declined to vote directly on passing the proposal.
It instead voted 7-5 to send HB333 to interim study.
"It's disappointing. We've studied this to death. We know what the right thing to do is. We just have to find the courage to do it," said Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clinton, the bill's sponsor. "We're not dead yet. I'll bring it back. I'll pound it until I wear them down."
Ray proposes to impose the same 86.5 percent tax on e-cigarettes that is charged on other non-cigarette tobacco products in Utah. He says that will reduce vaping among price-conscious youth as state studies now show that one of every 10 Utah teens has used them in the last 30 days.
"We tax all tobacco products in the state of Utah except e-cigarettes," Ray told the committee. "E-cigarettes are a tobacco product. It contains nicotine, and nicotine is derived from the tobacco plant."
He added that tobacco companies "have basically killed off their clientele. They know that if they can't addict a new generation to tobacco, they will go out of business in the next 20 years. E-cigarettes are how they are going to addict that next generation."
At least 300 high school students joined him to support the bill, filling the hearing room, overflow rooms and surrounding hallways. They are part of Students Against Electronic Vaping, which collected 5,000 signatures in support. Its leaders also said last week they have been threatened online with violence for their stands.
"What I've seen with my friends is that e-cigarettes have become a gateway drug for my generation. They are tailored to youth," said Cade Hyde, leader of SAEV and student-body president of Davis High School.
The students crowding the hearing prompted Shilo Platts, with the Utah chapter of the Smoke-Free Trade Alternatives Association, to say, "We don't agree with using children as political props, and today's tactics by Representative Ray unfortunately quite frankly represent an entirely new low."
He also complained that Ray earlier this legislative session referred to e-cigarettes as a "scumbag industry."
Ray responded, "These are the guys that make threats to the kids," although Platt denied that, "and they say it's a new low by using kids as a prop. Understand these kids approached me… They came to me and said, 'Can we help?'"
Platts said e-cigarettes are "categorically different" than other tobacco products, and said some do not contain nicotine. He said they are far safer than regular cigarettes, and help many smokers stop using cigarettes and cut down on nicotine over time.
"It has actually saved my life" by helping kick a 2 ½-pack-a-day cigarette habit, said Brad Parsons, owner of the VaporLoc vaping store.
He said the tax would raise the price of e-cigarettes astronomically in Utah, and likely would send most of his customers to buy products online instead. "If this is passed, every single e-cig shop in the state would go out of business…. And the millions of dollars in state sales tax you guys are getting now will go away."
Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, argued that raising taxes will not necessarily solve youth vaping problems, and called for more study.
Rep. Doug Sagers, R-Tooele, agreed. "I'm not sure it's our obligation as legislators to come in and replace parents with a tax increase" to try to stop underage usage."