Smokeless Solutions owner Jason Weber said a tobacco tax bill passed by the Oregon House on Thursday has the potential to spell doom for vape shops in Oregon.
Douglas County Health Officer Dr. Bob Dannenhoffer said the measure, which subjects e-cigarettes and other vaping products to the 65 percent wholesale tax imposed on other non-cigarette tobacco products, serves as a deterrent for smokers and addresses vaping as a public health concern.
House Bill 2270 now goes to the Senate for consideration and, if passed, will ultimately be referred to voters for approval. A walkout by Senate Republicans this week threatens to derail the legislation.
The cigarette tax would rise to $3.33 per pack, from the current $1.33, in line with Washington and California and raise the cap on cigar taxes.
Weber has been watching the bill intently, even driving to Salem to testify on behalf of vape shops throughout Oregon. Employees at Smokeless Solutions are mentally preparing for the Roseburg store to close if the tobacco tax passes.
“I think that it has the potential to put all of the Oregon shops out of business,” Weber said. “I will probably end up just moving to another state that has a more reasonable tax and having to shut my doors. We already struggle with internet sales. Oregon is going to shoot themselves in the foot.”
Sen. Dallas Heard, R-Winston, said he would support the bill if it would be referred to voters.
“The main point is that we’ve already seen a lot of tax increases through the democratic administration that is running every level of government in the state,” Heard said. “None of those tax increases that they put through goes before the voters to decide. The reason that I was even open to this referral of a tobacco tax was because it comes with a lot of federal matching funds.”
Heard said for every dollar the tax raises, it will bring in just under $3 from the federal government.
The bill is projected to generate $346 million per biennium for Medicaid, but was also proposed as a public health initiative. Dannenhoffer said pairing smoke taxes and Medicaid works out as a deterrent for smokers, which then reduces the cost of medical expenses overall.
“One in three people who smoke will die or be seriously injured from their smoking, so it really is a public health concern,” Dannenhoffer said. “Vaping is a public health concern because of addiction to nicotine. We think all addictions have issues. Vaping is an issue because it’s a relatively new thing and we don’t know if there are going to be long-term negative effects of this level of nicotine. We generally apply taxes to other things that are addictive.”
With 31.5% of adults smoking in Douglas County, according to the Oregon Health Association, Douglas County is in the top third of Oregon counties for percentage of smokers. Between 2013 and 2016, Douglas County had over 199 preventable deaths attributed to tobacco-related diseases.
Weber doesn’t believe that vaping should be considered a public health concern, much like cigarettes. Weber was a cigarette smoker for 14 years and when he wanted to quit eight years ago, vaping was the only thing that worked.
“It’s proven that vaping is the most successful thing to help adults quit smoking,” Weber said while pointing to his website. “Why would they come attack us for such a little amount when we’re the best chance of making smoking not the leading preventable cause of death? My job is to help people stop smoking.”
Tobacco-related diseases like cancer, cardiovascular diseases and respiratory diseases cost Oregon more than $1.4 billion in healthcare costs according to the Oregon Health Authority. Smoking is the leading cause of preventable deaths in the United States.
Weber is also the founder of Vape Crusaders, an informational organization that promotes vaping as a way to quit smoking. According to a study from the Royal College of Physicians, vaping is “at least 95%” safer than smoking cigarettes.”
He opened the store in 2015 and shortly after, added what he calls the “death bucket” where customers can throw all of their old cigarettes and tobacco products, sometimes in containers as big as a five-pound bag of flour.
“When someone comes in and they want to quit smoking, if they have cigarettes left, which they usually do, I don’t care if it’s one left in the pack, if they throw it in there, we give them $5 off of their setup,” Weber said. “That way, they leave here relying just on their vaporizer instead of cigarettes because it’s human nature, if you have both, when you get stressed out at some point, you’re going to go for what you’ve done for years. It keeps people from getting stuck in that habit.”
About 38 packs of cigarettes were sold per capita in Oregon in 2017, which is down from 98 in 1993, according to the Oregon Health Authority.
Vape pens are not certified cessation devices with the Food and Drug Administration, which Dannenhoffer said is a sign that vaping is not everything the supporters claim it is.
“On one hand, there may be some people who are using vaping to get off cigarettes, so it’s possible that that happens,” Dannenhoffer said. “On the other hand, there is some data that people may vape then also start smoking. If it was really being used as a cessation product, you would see it in drug stores and with prescriptions.”
Weber and the studies linked on his website claim vaping is not a gateway to smoking.
Weber’s sales distributor, Jordan Silva said he refused to smoke despite a stressful work environment in Northern California.
He said his family has a history of alcohol abuse and he grew up with parents who smoked, so he refused to go down either of those paths. Vaping was the only thing that helped his dad never want to touch a cigarette again.
“I turned to vaping as the opportunity to get my satisfaction without having to put all the chemicals that cigarettes have into my body,” Silva said.
Silva said he’s gone all in on Weber’s mission to inform people about how vaping has helped them and their customers. He said if the tax is sent to the voters and passed into law, he will move wherever Weber moves the shop.
“This is the first job I’ve had where I’m actually making a difference,” Silva said. “Here, I’m able to help people and it will affect them long-term. I want to stay in vaping and I want to continue helping people. It’s all about education.”
If approved by voters, the law would go into effect in 2021.