House Bill 2114 and Senate Bill 2079, recently sponsored by state Sen. Shane Reeves, R-Murfreesboro, and state Rep. Robin Smith, R-Hixson, intends to officially bring state law into compliance with federal law by setting the purchase age for tobacco and e-cigarettes to 21.
The legislation aims to strengthen enforcement of the purchase age and institute non-compliance fines. It also seeks to impose a 62-cent tax for vapor cartridges — the same rate as a pack of cigarettes.
"This bill seeks to bring parity to traditional tobacco products and electronic smoking devices or vaping products,” state Sen. Rusty Crowe, R-Johnson City, said. "As chairman of the Health and Welfare Committee, I know the extreme cost of adolescent smoking in our state, in terms of diminished quality of life, as well as human lives lost.
“And of course, the financial costs are staggering. I look forward to hearing from the people I serve here in Northeast Tennessee and to the benefit of a full and informative debate."
The House bill was filed for introduction Friday, while the Senate bill was introduced and passed with first consideration on Monday.
In Tennessee, e-cigarette and vape products are currently not taxed like traditional tobacco products are, while 21 other states currently tax e-cigarette and vape products like their tobacco counterparts.
According to state data, nicotine addiction directly impacts state spending. TennCare reported expenditures of nearly $150 million in 2018 for “tobacco-related illness.” This cost represents $147 million for those 21 years and older and $1.7 million for residents under age 21.
Nearly 95% of adults who smoke began before the age of 21. In Tennessee, teen use of e-cigarettes, or vapes, has doubled within two years. More than 20% of high school students have reported using electronic vapor products and tobacco products in the last 30 days.
Organizations supporting the legislation include the American Heart Association, BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, Boys & Girls Clubs of Tennessee, Tennessee Dental Association, Tennessee Hospital Association, Tennessee Medical Association, Tennessee Pharmacists Association, United Ways of Tennessee and Vanderbilt University Medical Center.
Todd King, owner of Johnson City’s Vapor Mill, said he is “totally opposed” to the tax aspect of the law, in particular.
“We pay sales tax and business licenses, so the state is getting money. It’s not like they’re totally cut out of it,” King said.
King also disagrees with the fact that his nicotine products are considered tobacco products.
“Technically, vapor products are not a tobacco product. According to the FDA, we are, but in my opinion, we should’ve never been lumped in with tobacco,” he said.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “evidence is not sufficient to rule out the contribution of other chemicals” like vitamin E acetate and THC in vaping-related illnesses. King suggests e-cigarette products themselves are not to blame for the recent rash of illnesses.
King said vaping is a much safer alternative to smoking, which kills more than 11,000 Tennesseans every year.
“There are millions of people across the country that can testify to that,” King said. “It’s a much better alternative.”
Though he didn’t weigh in on the legislation’s other stipulations, Volunteer Vapors Owner Donnie Grayer disagrees with the recent federal regulations that raised the age of purchase for e-cigarettes to 21 since 18-year-olds can join the military and vote.
He said we need a “universal age of adulthood.”
“We hold them accountable for their actions in a court of law at the age of 18, but we somehow feel they are not old enough to vape, smoke or drink,” he said. “If they aren't old enough to know the ramifications of smoking, vaping or drinking, then how can we put a rifle in their hands and send them off to kill and or die for our country?”