Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden has announced plans to introduce legislation that would tax e-cigarettes the same way traditional cigarettes are taxed.
Wyden announced the forthcoming bill in a press conference Wednesday, Sept. 4, following the announcement of the July death of an Oregon resident from what health authorities say is a vaping-related lung illness from using cannabis purchased at a dispensary. The death was reported to the public by the Oregon Health Authority on Tuesday, Sept. 4.
That death remains under investigation, but it follows a nationwide wave of hospitalizations and deaths due to lung illness believed to be linked to e-cigarette use. The Oregon Health Authority says the Oregon case is one among a cluster of 200 other vaping-related respiratory illnesses in at least 25 states.
County health officials cautioned that there hasn't been a conclusion about exactly what's causing the respiratory illnesses or deaths, or what substances or devices were involved in each case. But Wyden called the rise in e-cigarette use "a serious public health challenge."
"A new generation of nicotine users has been created almost overnight," Wyden said, referring to the rapid rise in popularity of vaping, or e-cigarette products, which deliver a vaporized version of nicotine without the tobacco of cigarettes.
When the products first came on to the market years ago, they were billed as a way for smokers to transition away from cigarettes, but the senator says they've become the nicotine product of choice for teens.
"I think e-cigarettes are an on-ramp to a lifetime of nicotine addiction," Wyden said. "I think it's understood that increasing the price of cigarettes makes it far less likely that teenagers will take up smoking. Taxing e-cigarettes could give us the opportunity to achieve the same goal."
He was joined Wednesday by Dr. Patricia Charles-Heathers, director of the Multnomah County Health Department, Multnomah County Commissioners Deborah Kafoury and Sharon Meieran, and Deputy Health Officer Jennifer Vines.
"Within a few years of their arrival in this country, we saw firsthand how an unregulated product was being widely sold in this county placed directly next to the sweet and sour candy that kids love," said Kafoury, who chairs the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners. "They are so easy to use they look like a charger or a pen. One in 10 kids using a product that can lead to a lifelong addiction and other health problems."
Charles-Heathers called the tax proposal "good public health policy."
"Money speaks. Taxes do change behavior, especially on consumption by youth," Charles-Heathers said. "There are things we can do as a community to encourage healthy behavior and discourage things we know lead to disease and death. Tobacco and nicotine control is fundamental. Most youths vape because the e-liquid flavors come in fruit and candy flavors. They believe these things are safer than they truly are. There are unknown risks from unregulated liquids."
Oregon voters are already slated to vote on a tax increase for cigarettes and e-cigarettes in November 2020. That ballot measure proposes to increase the cigarette tax from $1.33 per pack to $3.33 per pack and add a tax on e-cigarette and other inhalant delivery systems that amounts to 65% of the wholesale price. The measure would also increase the cap on cigar taxes from .50 cents to $1.
This isn't the first time Wyden has taken aim at e-cigarette manufacturers. In April, he joined Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley in calling for an investigation into the marketing practices of e-cigarette companies like Juul.
The lawmakers said they suspected digital ads for the products were targeted toward teens.
As of Aug. 27, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports 215 possible cases of severe pulmonary — or lung-related — disease associated with using e-cigarette products.
The cases have been reported in 25 states and additional reports of pulmonary illness are under investigation, according to the CDC.
One patient in Illinois was hospitalized on July 29 with severe pulmonary disease and died on Aug. 20.
The Oregon Health Authority also is investigating a recent death.
Although the cause of the disease is undetermined, investigations in affected states are under way to better characterize the exposures, demographic, clinical and laboratory features and behaviors of patients, according to the CDC.
All patients have reported using e-cigarette products.
Patients have experienced some or all of the following symptoms:
• Respiratory symptoms: Cough, shortness of breath, or chest pain.
• Gastrointestinal symptoms: Nausea, vomiting or diarrhea.
• Non-specific constitutional symptoms: Fatigue, fever or weight loss.
If you or someone you know is ready to quit using tobacco, including vaping products such as e-cigarettes, free help is available from the following resources:
• 1-800-QUIT-NOW (800-784-8669), quitnow.net.
• Español: 855-DEJELO-YA (855-335-35692), quitnow.net/oregonsp.
• thisisquitting.com (quit resource for youth).
This story has been updated since it first appeared online.
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