SALEM — Oregon took a step closer Thursday to taxing e-cigarettes and other vaping devices.
On a 39-21 vote, the House approved increasing the cigarette tax to $2 per pack, part of a change to the law that would also slap new taxes on cigars and nicotine inhalant devices.
However, the tax increase — which is scheduled for 2021 — still needs to pass the Senate and get voter approval.
Supporters say the tax increase serves two purposes.
Rep. Rachel Prusak, D-West Linn, said making tobacco and nicotine products more expensive could discourage people from starting to smoke or vape.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says when people become smokers, they're almost always under 25, and nearly nine in 10 start smoking when they're under 18. Teenagers and younger adults tend to have less disposable income than millennials and older adults, and supporters of the tax increase hope that a higher price tag on cigarettes and cigars will effectively prevent cash-strapped young people from buying them and becoming addicted to nicotine.
"A tobacco tax indeed discourages our youth from ever starting to smoke, and it definitely encourages those who have started to quit," said Prusak, a public health nurse. "We know that the best way to deter access, particularly by young people, is to raise the price."
The tax would also raise about $350 million per biennium for the Oregon Health Authority. Supporters say that money will help the poor, the elderly and other vulnerable groups by improving access to health care.
Opponents argue that tobacco taxes are regressive and exploit the poor and working class. Because the new taxes are passed along to consumers, they essentially force smokers and vapers to pay more for a product to which they are chemically addicted.
"I don't believe that we can actually price people who are addicted to this out of the market," said Rep. Duane Stark, R-Grants Pass. "We might be able to keep some people from using it — maybe. But as far as those who are already addicted, I mean, go hang out with any group of homeless people and see that those who have addictions still find ways to access those addictions, no matter what the cost of that substance is."
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, smoking is more prevalent among poorer Americans, who are already hit hardest by sales taxes. Oregon does not have a general sales tax.
For the first time, the tax would also apply to e-cigarettes and similar products. Vaping has become an increasingly popular "alternative" to smoking and smokeless tobacco. While studies suggest that vaping has a less negative effect on users' health than smoking, public health experts warn that it can still lead to nicotine addiction and may encourage more people to begin using tobacco products.
Smoking is the leading cause of preventable death in the United States, according to the CDC.
Prospects for the tobacco tax increase looked bleak throughout most of the legislative session. However, a compromise was brokered earlier this month between Democrats and moderate Republicans under which the tax hike will be referred to voters in November 2020.
Eighteen senators will still have to approve the bill before the new taxes head to the ballot. With the Senate at a standstill due to a Republican boycott, it's unclear when or if that will happen.