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E-cig tax, sponsored by 2 Long Island House members, gets through committee

Rep. Tom Suozzi, left, and Rep. Peter King

Rep. Tom Suozzi, left, and Rep. Peter King have sponsored a bill to tax e-cigarettes that was approved Wednesday by the House tax-writing committee. Credit: Barry Sloan / Charles Eckert

The House of Representatives' tax-writing committee Wednesday approved a bill sponsored by two Long Island congressmen that would for the first time impose a federal tax on e-cigarettes.

In a 24-15 vote, the House Ways and Means Committee approved the tax, which would be calculated based on the amount of nicotine in vaping liquid and is designed to be roughly equivalent to the existing levy on cigarettes. The measure now goes to the full House.

“Vaping is bad. This will decrease it,” bill sponsor Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-Glen Cove) said during the committee hearing, citing evidence that high taxes on cigarettes helped decrease smoking rates.

Suozzi said the bill is especially targeted at reducing what he called an “epidemic” of youth vaping. Young people are particularly sensitive to price increases, he said. Nearly 40 percent of New York high school seniors vape, according to the state department of health.

Some committee members complained that the measure, which Suozzi and Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) introduced on Friday, was being pushed through too quickly.

“We’ve had no experts testify to tell us what are the health and safety challenges they see and what steps Congress can best take to address them,” said Kevin Brady (R-Texas). “So instead of regular order I think the approach has been to tax first, ask questions later.”

States that have imposed vape-liquid taxes have based the tax on volume or sales, not nicotine content, he said. 

Suozzi acknowledged that backers of the bill in the House have moved fast.

"But we’re facing a health crisis in the country," he said. "And it’s something that parents in every one of our districts are coming to us about.”

Brady called for a more comprehensive approach, including discussion of raising the smoking and vaping age to 21, as it will be in New York beginning next month.

Suozzi said in an interview after the vote that he supports a federal minimum age of 21. He and King last month introduced a bill that not only introduces a tax on e-cigarettes, but also triples the tax on combustible cigarettes and bans most flavored e-cigarettes.

Getting that bill through Congress, Suozzi said, will take longer than enacting a federal e-cigarette tax.

King agreed.

“This is a solid first step,” said King, who does not sit on the committee but described himself as buoyed by ‘yes’ votes from two Republicans on a committee that typically is sharply divided along partisan lines.

An analysis by the fiscally conservative Tax Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, estimates the tax would amount to a $1.15 levy on an e-cigarette pod with 5% nicotine content.

Cheryl Richter, executive director of the New York State Vapor Association, an upstate-based industry group, said a more effective way to reduce youth vaping is stricter enforcement of minimum ages.

The tax would punish people who use e-cigarettes to stop smoking, she said.

“It is absolutely ridiculous to tax a product to help people quit smoking and try to make it equivalent to tobacco, the thing it’s supposed to keep people away from,” Richter said.

Combined with a 20% state sales levy on vape products set to go into effect Dec. 1, the federal tax will drive many vapers to the black market, where there is less quality control, she said.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said many of the nearly 1,500 people nationwide with confirmed cases of lung injuries linked to vaping bought products off the street. Most vapers with lung diseases whose e-cigarette history is known vaped THC, the chemical in marijuana that causes a high, or THC and nicotine, although some reported vaping only nicotine, the CDC said. 

According to the agency, 33 deaths have been caused by vaping-related illnesses.

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