At one point Wednesday as Sen. Adam Ebbin addressed the Senate Finance committee, he brought his closed fist to his mouth for a brief moment and continued speaking.
Wrapped inside the Alexandria senator’s fist was a Juul — one of several vaping products middle and high school students have been smoking at alarming rates.
Ebbin, a Democrat, admitted he took a drag from the USB drive-sized vaping device in front of his colleagues to prove a point: if he can sneak a hit of nicotine in front of a Senate committee, teenagers can just as likely do the same in front of their teachers.
To help get the e-cigarettes out of students’ hands, Ebbin wants to tax them at 40 percent, with 90 percent of the revenue going to hire more school counselors. He argued more counselors would be able to better discourage students from using and help with addiction.
Ebbin’s bill — which would also allow localities to tax e-cigarettes — was punted Wednesday to the Joint Commission to Evaluate Tax Preferences, which is studying cigarette tax reform. Ebbin said he’s hopeful it’ll be back in the 2020 session. And other proposals to tax e-cigarettes are still alive for this year.
Under Ebbin’s plan, 10 percent of the tax revenue would go to Quit Now Virginia Fund, a tobacco addiction counseling hotline that currently gets $400,000 annually from the federal government but no state funding.
E-Cigarette Startup Juul to Shutdown Facebook, Instagram Accounts. The moves are in response to the Food and Drug Administration’s call to curb underage e-cigarette use. The company adds its presence on Twitter will now be limited to nonpromotional communications. Juul’s sales have surged over the past year, thanks to its popularity among teenagers and children. Juul Labs CEO Kevin Burns, via blog post Juul also plans to stop selling flavored nicotine liquids at bricks-and-mortar stores. The company will continue to sell all of its products on its website where there is age-verification technology.
Ebbin, a non-smoker, said he practiced vaping once in his office before doing it live in front of fellow senators.
“I don’t like the effect of the nicotine,” he said in an interview Wednesday. “It made me a little unsettled.”
The FDA’s Youth Tobacco survey found that 3.6 million high school and middle school students are using e-cigarettes, such as Juuls and other vaping devices — 1.5 million more than a year ago, or an increase of 78 percent.
In December, U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams declared e-cigarette use among youth an “epidemic” in the United States.
The Department of Taxation estimates the tax could bring in $15 to $20 million annually, and Ebbin said it would fund the salaries of 250 additional counselors.
His proposal, along with Gov. Ralph Northam’s $36 million ask for more counselors, would bring the ratio of students to counselors to 273 to one, Ebbin said. Right now, state law requires one high school counselor for every 350 students.
Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr., R-James City, also proposed clearing the way to levy tobacco taxes on e-cigarettes. His bill makes the devices taxable and calls for a rate to be set by the tobacco tax study commission. Sen. Bryce Reeves, R-Fredericksburg, has a bill identical to Norment’s.
Meanwhile, a Republican effort to raise the purchase age of vaping products to 21 is making its way through the General Assembly. Currently, you have to be 18 to buy e-cigarettes. That bill has the support of Juul and one of its major investors, Richmond-based tobacco giant Altria.
Raising the purchase age would halt a black market that has emerged in which 18-year-olds bring legally purchased e-cigarettes into school to sell to younger students, Reeves said at a Courts of Justice committee meeting Wednesday.
Representatives of vaping stores spoke against the measure, arguing that Juul’s products are giving vaping a bad name.
The American Cancer Society argued a better approach would be to penalize retailers rather than youthful buyers.