In a press conference this morning in Portland, U.S Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) announced his plans to introduce legislation that would impose a federal sales tax on e-cigarettes.
The announcement comes at a darkly opportune moment.
On Tuesday afternoon, the Oregon Health Authority announced an investigation into the state's first death believed linked to an e-cigarette or vaping device. The CDC reports that over 200 similar cases nationwide have been reported—but only one other death.
The press conference panel said the person who died in Oregon was middle-aged, but no other identifying factors were shared. The panel confirmed that the person had been using an e-cigarette containing a product purchased from a cannabis store.
Wyden said that when the U.S. Senate reconvenes next week, he plans on introducing an e-cigarette tax.
"I will introduce legislation to address this growing problem by taxing e-cigs the same way traditional cigs are taxed. It's understood that increasing the price of cigarettes makes it far less likely that teenagers will take up smoking," Wyden said.
A tobacco tax measure that passed the state legislature in June will be on the November 2020 ballot. If passed, it would increase the tax on cigarette packs by two dollars, place a tax on inhalation devices (65% of the wholesale price of the device), and would allow cigars to be taxed up to $1.00.
If the bill is passed, revenues would be funneled to the OHA for various healthcare programs. The tax would take effect on the first day of 2021.
E-cigarettes are currently exempt from federal tobacco taxes, though they are regulated as a tobacco product by the Food and Drug Administration.
"They're highly addictive, they're subject to minimal safety standards and oversight, exposing users to dangerous chemicals like formaldehyde," said Wyden." And they're getting into the hands of more and more younger people."
Wyden blasted e-cigarette companies for duplicating Big Tobacco strategies of marketing to young people before the industry was dismantled by lawsuits.
"I remember when the tobacco executives who were under oath in 1994, told me that nicotine was not addictive. That was a lie. It was a falsehood. It was a smokescreen," Wyden said. "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 by Multnomah County Commissioner Board Chair Deborah Kafoury and Commissioner Sharon Meieran.
Meieran, an emergency room physician, said that misconceptions about e-cigarettes still run rampant among young people. One of the most common ones is that "the use of e-cigs and vaping is harmless; that it's steam instead of smoke."
But Meieran says e-cigarettes are almost more dangerous than traditional cigarettes because the fruity flavors they're often offered in mask the "deterrent" in cigarettes, the foul taste or smell.
As a mother of two, Meieran said the epidemic has taken over schools.
40 percent of high school seniors reported using a vape device in the past year, according to a new government report.
"They're literally not vaping just in bathrooms, but in the classrooms," Meieran said.
Kafoury added that "Within a few years of their arrival in this country, we saw firsthand how an unregulated product was being widely sold in this county, placed directly next to the sweet and sour candy kids love." She added, "It's become so prevalent that our teens often call bathrooms 'the juul room.'"
In 2017, Kafoury said, 10 percent of 7th graders reported they had used a vaping device in the past month.
Kafoury said she and her fellow commissioners have "lobbied hard" for a state tax on e-cigarettes, "because we are not allowed to pass one ourselves."