By Nick Reynolds
Via Wyoming News Exchange
LANDER — Limiting future tobacco use is not exactly a part of the job description for members of the Wyoming Legislature’s Joint Committee on Revenue.
However, after a pair of bills intended to curb the use of tobacco products, e-cigarettes and vaporizers among minors — a tobacco tax increase and updated regulations on tobacco products — failed in the 2019 session, members of the committee spent most of Thursday morning contemplating whether or not a tax on such products, or some other deterrent, could help end what has been described by the U.S. Surgeon General as an “epidemic” among youth today.
The group plans to work on several bills intended to tackle the issue ahead of the 2020 budget, including restrictions on online sales, raising the minimum age to purchase tobacco and e-cigarette products, and potentially introducing a tax that’s costly enough to serve as a deterrent.
Over several hours of testimony, members of the committee heard the pros and cons of using taxation as a deterrent for high schoolaged consumers, and whether or not such a tax would unfairly harm current smokers who use products like vaporizers and e-cigarettes as a smoking cessation tool.
Administrators from several school districts testified that the use of nicotine products in their schools have increased dramatically over the past several years. In Pinedale, 70 percent of all outof-school suspensions are for vaping. Rock Springs High School has suspended 95 students so far this year for vaping, and in Riverton five $750 tickets have been issued by school resource officers in the past several years.
“It’s an all-time high,” Charlie Marshall, an officer there, said in regards to vape-related violations.
While the Wyoming Legislature — and particularly newly appointed committee co-chair Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne — have fielded bills for tobacco taxes in the past, the concept of a specific tax on nicotine-infused products, particularly as a deterrent, is up for debate. Numerous states have implemented some form of tax on tobacco or nicotine-infused products, according to an analysis from the Legislative Service Office, with a variety of ways to collect the tax, including by the milliliter or by the wholesale value of the product.
Many in favor of a tax argued that high taxes could lead to decreased consumption among minors. While studies relating to e-cigarettes or similar products are sparse, increasing taxes on cigarettes and other tobacco products has been shown to be an effective deterrent by the U.S. Surgeon General and has often been cited by tobacco companies as a threat to future sales.
While some groups in attendance — like the Cancer Action Network — recommended tax increases as high as $1.50 per the equivalent of a pack of cigarettes for all tobacco or nicotine-infused products, the Revenue Committee declined to set a rate at Thursday’s meeting. However, they plan to draft a bill proposing a wholesale value tax, with a rate to be decided at a later date.
However, recent taxes on e-cigarettes have their critics. Some argue they harm individuals, particularly adults, who are trying to quit cigarettes or smokeless tobacco by turning instead to somewhat safer vaping products. One shop owner in attendance told committee members she already pays more than half a million dollars in excise taxes every year and added it’s already difficult to meet margins set low enough to compete with online competitors.
Spencer Pittman, owner of Steam Vapour Co. in Laramie, told the committee that most illicit possession of vape products by youth comes not from shops like his but through online sales or unscrupulous convenience store owners. Rather than levying high taxes, which he said would disproportionately harm small businesses, Pittman told the committee to instead focus its attention on cracking down on the real sources of youth e-cigarette ownership.
“Is the law already being followed? Are we doing all we can to ask teens we see vaping on the street where they got these? We need to start asking these questions,” said Mark Larson, a lobbyist for the Wyoming/Colorado Petroleum Marketers Association.
In response, the Revenue Committee will be pursuing legislation to do just that: a bill to ban online sales of nicotine-infused products and increased fines for those found possessing the products underage or selling to a minor.