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Vaping on the verge: Prop. 56 would tax it like tobacco

“Unicorn” opens his mod device and lets a few drops of clear juice fall. His vaporizer replenished, he deeply inhales and slowly exhales — an enormous amount of smoke billowing out of his nose and mouth. But it’s not actually smoke: The smell isn’t foul, it’s sweet.

“The nicotine mellows me out without any of the negative impacts of smoking,” Ryan Freeman, a.k.a. Unicorn, a 28-year-old salesman in jeans and a backward baseball cap, says as he sinks into a couch at a vape shop in Folsom (Sacramento County). “I went from wheezing every day to breathing.”

Vaping nicotine has grown in popularity in the past decade, especially among young adults like Freeman who are current or former cigarette smokers, according to the National Health Interview Survey. The liquid nicotine — or vape juice, e-juice and e-liquid — is touted as a safer alternative than cigarettes that contain harmful carcinogens and chemicals. But because e-cigarettes and vaping are relatively new to the market, they have been largely unregulated.

Until now. Increasingly, public health officials are targeting the industry, condemning the products as addictive, alluring to youth and a gateway to cigarettes. And one of the greatest threats facing the industry looms on the Nov. 8 ballot in California.

Proposition 56 is best known as the measure to dramatically boost the state’s cigarette tax. But it also would start to tax e-cigarettes and liquid nicotine like tobacco — which both sides say could trigger a similar push nationwide.

“Electronic cigarettes are extending and expanding the tobacco epidemic,” says Stanton Glantz, professor of medicine at UCSF and director of the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education. “They are bringing a whole new group of kids into the tobacco market who would never start cigarettes.”

In June, the journal Pediatrics published a study that found adolescents who had smoked e-cigarettes were more than six times as likely to smoke cigarettes than their peers who had never used an e-cigarette.

In May, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued regulations classifying the products as tobacco, banning the sale to anyone under 18, after surveys showed e-cigarette use among high school students had skyrocketed from 1.5 percent to 16 percent in the past four years. Over the summer, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law raising the legal smoking age in California to 21 — and applying it to vaping.

A growing number of cities have banned flavored nicotine, which comes in more than 1,000 combinations of concentrations and flavors: blackberry, watermelon and apple crisp, just to name a few. Five states have imposed additional taxes on e-cigarettes or vapor products.

“We have been under attack,” says Tony Doan, who owns two liquid nicotine manufacturing centers in the San Jose area. “They are making it impossible to stay in business and provide this alternative product. Passively, what they are doing is banning us.”

Prop. 56 would increase taxes on cigarettes by $2 a pack, moving it from one of the lowest tobacco taxes in the country to one of the highest, and impose new taxes on liquid nicotine products.

While the $2 tax increase would certainly hit smokers in the wallet, it would be even greater for vapers. That’s because the proposition would levy a 68 percent tax on liquid nicotine — turning a $15 to $20 bottle of juice into a $40 to $50 bottle.

“Everybody is going to go back to cigarettes,” Doan says. “A lot of people don’t realize that.”

Most experts agree vaping is less hazardous than smoking because the liquids don’t contain carcinogens. But recent studies have linked nicotine itself to adverse health conditions, including increased risk of heart attack and stroke. Most researchers agree little is known about the their long-term effects.

Industry giants Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds have poured US$66 million so far into the campaign to oppose Prop. 56. The message from the opposition, however, has been largely focused on criticizing how the tax revenue would be spent. Meanwhile, the argument that e-cigarettes and vaping are a safer alternative to tobacco is being voiced at the grassroots level, as wholesalers talk to vape store owners, who then encourage their customers to vote against the measure.

The stakes for this nascent industry are high.

“California is the mother of everything,” Doan says. “Once California passes it, every other state is going to follow suit, and that’s what is alarming.”

Although public polls show support for Proposition 56, voters have twice opposed recent ballot initiatives that would have boosted tobacco taxes. In both cases, in 2006 and 2012, the tobacco industry spent heavily to defeat them.

This year is no different. Tobacco companies have mounted an aggressive TV campaign underscoring that only 13 percent of the money raised would be spent on smoking prevention and cessation programs. Much of the additional tax revenue would pay for medical services for poor people through Medi-Cal.

Health advocates argue that roughly 17,000 minors get hooked on tobacco every year. They say the additional tax money raised by Prop. 56 would fully restore funding to effective antismoking programs that help keep cigarettes, e-cigarettes and vaping devices out of the hands of children.

“If voters pass 56, I think we will wipe out tobacco as a health issue in the next few years,” Glantz says. “If that happens, we’ll set a precedent for the rest of the country and the world that would be devastating for the tobacco industry.”

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