Politics & Government

These Kentucky Republicans want a hefty tax on e-cigs to help slow youth vaping trend

E-cigarettes’ distinction as the only tobacco product not subject to an excise tax in Kentucky could end in 2020 if a bill proposed by two Republican lawmakers Tuesday is approved next year.

The House bill, co-sponsored by Reps. Jerry Miller, R-Louisville, and Kim Moser, R-Taylor Mill, would place a 27.5 percent excise tax on all e-cigarettes, vapor products and smokeless tobacco in July of 2020, to an amount equivalent to the $1.10 excise tax on a pack of cigarettes. Sen. Julie Raque Adams, R-Louisville, will file a companion bill in the Senate.

Though an electronic cigarette contains nicotine and is still considered a tobacco product by the Food and Drug Administration, it relies on heated liquid in a cartridge rather than tobacco leaves. The devices produce a scented vapor that’s less traceable than cigarette smoke, making it easier for students to smoke in classrooms and school bathrooms, the bill’s sponsors said.

Miller and other backers of the bill, including Department of Public Health Commissioner Jeff Howard, couched the proposal as benefiting the health of Kentuckians and the state’s general fund, predicting that it would generate $35 million a year for the state’s General Fund.

“This is an opportunity to raise money for our desperately underfunded pensions and improve the health of our citizenry, especially young people who look for the cool thing to do,” said Miller, who’s a member of the state’s Public Pension Oversight Board.

Taxing tobacco products has historically curbed overall use in Kentucky, Howard said.

E-cigarettes, often called vape pens, are most popular in Kentucky among youth and pregnant women. In 2017, roughly half of all Kentucky young adults, ages 18-29, reporting having tried an e-cigarette, and use virtually doubled among teenagers in 6th, 7th and 8th grades, along with high school sophomores and seniors, between 2016 and 2018, according to state data. Pregnant women smoke at a rate of about 18 percent.

Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky President and CEO Ben Chandler called e-cigarette use among Kentuckians an “epidemic,” and one that can be curbed with a tax.

“Young people and pregnant women, in particular, are susceptible to price increases. When you increase the price of a product, you can be certain that it’s usage will go down,” he said.

Whether e-cigarettes are less harmful than traditional tobacco cigarettes is still contested by some, though e-cigarette liquid often still contains cancer-causing agents and heavy metals such as lead, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Some e-cigarette manufacturers, the biggest being Juul, have been sued in recent years for falsely marketing their products as safe, and for tailoring products to teenagers in part by advertising flavors like mango and cucumber.

State lawmakers and health leaders in Frankfort on Tuesday pointed to high levels of nicotine present in e-cigarettes and the harm wrought by teenage addiction, before bodies and brains are fully developed.

Alex Acquisto covers health and social services for the Lexington Herald-Leader and Kentucky.com. She joined the newspaper in June 2019 as a corps member with Report for America, a national service program made possible in Kentucky with support from the Blue Grass Community Foundation. She’s from Owensboro, Ky., and previously worked at the Bangor Daily News and other newspapers in Maine.