As cigarettes lose popularity, lawmakers look at taxing vaping devices, liquid

Vaping products — including e-cigarettes, like the popular JUUL — are subject to the state’s...
Vaping products — including e-cigarettes, like the popular JUUL — are subject to the state’s sales tax, but no other special tax.(File photo (custom credit))
Updated: Oct. 24, 2018 at 3:18 PM EDT
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As tax revenue from tobacco products falls, Virginia lawmakers are turning their attention to vaping products, Virginia Mercury reports.

Vaping involves flavored liquids that are vaporized within a device, inhaled and then exhaled.

The devices consist of a mouthpiece, a battery, a cartridge for containing the e-liquid or e-juice, and a heating component for the device that is powered by a battery, according the Center on Addiction.

Right now, there is no consensus among the Joint Subcommittee to Evaluate Tax Preferences on the best way to tax vaping products, which have become especially popular among teenagers.

The subcommittee received a briefing on the topic at its meeting Tuesday, but didn’t take any formal action to recommend legislation or other changes.

Vaping products — including e-cigarettes, like the popular JUUL — are subject to the state’s sales tax, but no other special tax.

Tobacco, on the other hand, has been taxed since 1960, starting with a 3-cent tax on a pack of 20 cigarettes. The rate was reduced in 1966 to 2.5 cents per pack, then jumped to 20 cents per pack in 2004 and then to 30 cents per pack in 2005, where it has stayed.

It’s the second-lowest cigarette tax in the country. Only Missouri is lower, with a 17-cent-per-pack rate.

Cities and towns can levy an additional cigarette tax, and that ranges from a few cents to 75 cents per pack.

The cigarette tax helps fund the the Tobacco Settlement Fund to support economic development in areas that were previously dependent on tobacco farming, but revenue is decreasing. The number of smokers in Virginia has declined considerably over the past 20 years, mirroring a trend nationwide.

There was a 5 percent drop in Virginia cigarette tax revenue between fiscal years 2016 and 2017, and revenue has fallen each of the last five years.

It’s not clear how much of the decrease might result from vaping, said Connor Gartska, an attorney in the Division of Legislative Services who works on tax policy.

There have been efforts to tax vaping liquid and devices in Virginia since 2015. The proposals have estimated revenues could range from $10 to $40 million for the state.

Eight other states already tax vaping materials, some by taxing the device and some by taxing the liquid used in the devices.

During the 2017 General Assembly, Del. Kaye Kory, D-Falls Church, proposed taxing 10 percent of the retail price of a vaping device and 5 cents per milliliter of vaping liquid sold.

It would have generated $11 million to the Tobacco Settlement Fund, half-a-million to the General Fund and $5 million to localities.

Sen. Bryce Reeves, R-Fredericksburg, wanted to know if it would be possible to tax vaping based on the amount of nicotine in the product.

“You can figure out how much nicotine is in one cigarette, you can figure out how much is in one of those little flash drives, right?” Reeves asked staff, referring to the JUUL electronic cigarette.

Although there are vaping liquids that do not have nicotine, Gartska said his department only considered items that contain nicotine.

It’s not clear yet how much safer vaping liquid — or vape juice — is than tobacco and what risks it might pose.

Del. Mark Keam, D-Vienna, said he was concerned about how the vaping and electronic smoking market appeals to the under-18 crowd.

Virginia does have laws prohibiting the sale of vapor products to minors and requiring the products are sold in child-resistant material.

Keam said he plans to introduce legislation to further limit access of the products to people under 18 years old.

The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.