Sen. Ron Wyden on Wednesday announced he will draft federal legislation to tax e-cigarette products containing nicotine the same as traditional cigarettes. The current federal cigarette tax is about $1 for a pack of 20, and his proposed e-cigarette tax would apply at an equivalent rate based on nicotine content.
“These products are highly addictive,” he said during an event at the Multnomah County Health Department headquarters. “They are subject to minimal safety standards and oversight, exposing users to dangerous chemicals like formaldehyde. And they are getting into the hands of more and more young people.”
He made the announcement at Multnomah County, which, under Chair Deborah Kafoury, has aggressively worked to keep e-cigarettes from being sold to minors, to treat vaping indoors like smoking indoors, and in licensing retailers to assure those rules are followed.
E-cigarettes came to U.S. markets little more than a decade ago, and Kafoury said Wednesday that by 2017, in Multnomah County, 10 percent of 11th graders reported vaping in the past 30 days. Nationally, one-in-five high school students vape. And a single company, Juul, has become so prevalent among teens it has earned the special attention of the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
They have become so prevalent on school campuses that teens often call the bathrooms the "Juul room,” Kafoury said. Today, about 80 percent of kids who have used nicotine, started with a flavor such as tutti-frutti or chocolate.
“A new generation of nicotine users has been created virtually overnight, and I believe the companies making billions are downplaying the health risks,” Wyden said. “I’ve seen this before—it’s the same playbook the tobacco companies ran for decades.”
Wyden recounted being Congressional hearings with Big Tobacco and hearing similar assurances.
"I remember when the tobacco executives who were under oath in 1994, told me that nicotine was not addictive,” Wyden said. “That was a lie. It was a falsehood. It was a smokescreen. I will tell you just as I did back then, I'm not going to just take the word of a bunch of big companies who say when they're making their pitches, 'They're taking care of the health of kids.’”
Wyden was joined Wednesday by Chair Kafoury and Commissioner Dr. Sharon Meieran, who cheered the proposal.
“Multnomah County has a responsibility to protect the health of people,” Kafoury said. “Especially our little people. Our curious toddlers and curious teens. And that has been a challenge when it comes to e-cigarettes.”
In 2015, Multnomah County passed an ordinance that prohibits minors from buying and using inhalant delivery systems. The Board also passed a tobacco retail license rule, which allowed inspectors to enforce the law. And Commissioners have lobbied for a state tax on e-cigarettes.
“I’m proud of the steps that Multnomah County has taken to stop kids from getting ahold of these things," Kafoury said. “We’re not done yet and I will continue to work on these issues because the impacts on nicotine of a developing brain are lifelong. And no one really understands that when you are 14 years old.”
Most kids say they vape because the e-liquids come in fruit and candy flavors. And most think vaping are safer than it is. But there are unknown risks from unregulated liquids and by using e-cigarettes to inhale marijuana.
For example, the CDC is investigating a multistate outbreak of severe pulmonary disease associated with e-cigarette use. More than 200 people have been hospitalized and two have died, including a middle-aged Oregon resident whose death was announced Tuesday by the Oregon Health Authority.
Young people who vape are more likely to use tobacco products when they’re adults. And studies show an association between youth nicotine use and behavioral problems in later life such as depression, anxiety and other substance abuse.
Commissioner Meieran, an emergency room physician said the one reason people think these are safe, is that they have fewer additives than traditional nicotine products. But she said that may make them more dangerous,” because there’s no deterrent of taste, so they deliver high levels of nicotine without the deterrent of taste or smell,” she said.
“What we’re meant to breathe into our lungs… is air,” Dr. Meieran said.
Government has a role in creating policy to keep people safe and health, said Health Department Director Patricia Charles-Heathers.
“We want everyone to live fully, to enjoy good health and be free from chronic disease and addiction. This isn’t always an individual choice. There are things we can do as a community to encourage healthy behavior and discourage things we know lead to disease and death,” said Charles-Heathers. “Money speaks. Taxes do change behavior, especially on consumption by youth. And taxes create revenue that can be directed toward prevention and health promotion. And that is good public health policy.”