The state doesn’t tax vaping products but a bill in the Legislature aims to change that, adding the 75% excise tax on tobacco products to electronic cigarettes and boosting state revenues by $1 million the first year and $2.7 million by 2027.
The bill also would raise Alaska’s legal smoking age from 19 to 21, bringing it in line with federal law and giving the state authority to take enforcement action on smoke shops that sell tobacco and vaping products to people under 21. Currently, enforcement of the federal smoking age by the Food and Drug Administration is fairly lax.
Supporters of Senate Bill 45 say boosting state enforcement and increasing the cost of e-cigarettes would help cut down on an epidemic of teen vaping. Only vaping solutions containing nicotine would be taxed.
“We’re seeing tobacco use amongst youth going down but we’re seeing it go up among vaping products,” Joe Darnell, an investigator with the state’s Tobacco Youth Education & Enforcement Program, told the Senate Labor and Commerce Committee on Friday. “The kids don’t see harm in vaping. In the schools, they all believe that smoking is bad for you but they don’t see the risk in vaping.”
The bill is sponsored by Kodiak Republican Gary Stevens, who has been raising the issue of treating vaping products like tobacco products since 2016.
“My belief is that we have to try to help children avoid addiction to nicotine,” he said.
A similar measure introduced in the Legislature last year was endorsed by the Fairbanks North Star Borough Assembly but did not make it to law.
The fine for underaged possession of tobacco or vaping products is $300, and that is not proposed to be changed.
Stevens’ bill establishes an age-verification process for online transactions and removes an exemption from the legal smoking age for incarcerated minors.
Kersten Johnson, senior director over secondary education at the Anchorage School District, told the Labor and Commerce Committee that she is also seeing vaping rise in popularity among teens.
“In the past 10 years, it has virtually exploded,” she said.
She said about a quarter of high school students “engage in this behavior now.”
Electronic cigarettes are disguised to look like benign items, such as markers, which makes them difficult to detect, Johnson said.
“A lot of our youth believe this is a safer behavior than tobacco use,” she told the Senate committee.
Opponents of the measure say that’s true.
Alex McDonald is owner of Ice Fog Vapor in Fairbanks and wrote in a letter to the Labor and Commerce Committee that vaping products helped him quit smoking after 19 years.
He said raising taxes on electronic cigarettes will push people to return to traditional cigarettes. He said taxes on vaping products hurt small businesses and undermine the broader goal of improving public health.
“Smoking is the number one cause of preventable death in this country,” McDonald wrote. “We should be putting policies in place that help lower preventable deaths in our state instead of increasing that number.”
The Fairbanks City Council rejected an 8% tax on vaping products about a year ago but other municipal governments tax e-cigarettes to include Anchorage, Juneau, the Northwest Arctic Borough, the Petersburg Borough and the Matanuska-Susitna Borough.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, electronic cigarettes have the potential to help people if used as a substitute for traditional cigarettes but the agency says they are “not safe” for people who currently do not use tobacco products.
Contact staff writer Amanda Bohman at 459-7545. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMborough.