- Associated Press - Monday, February 10, 2014

HONOLULU (AP) - Hawaii lawmakers on Monday advanced bills that could heavily tax electronic smoking devices in the state.

People who sell the devices, also called vaporizers or e-cigs, turned out to hearings Friday and Monday to oppose the bills (SB2495 and SB2496). They said the devices help people stop smoking cigarettes and that high taxes could put their shops out of business.

One of the three bills lawmakers are considering originally called for an 85 percent wholesale tax on the devices, which can sell for $100 or more. That proposed tax rate isn’t expected to pass in the Legislature because several lawmakers said the devices may help people quit smoking cigarettes.

“We have to find a balance between public health and cessation advantage in this particular product,” said Health Committee Chairman Sen. Josh Green, a Democrat representing Kona and Kau.

Retailers testified that taxing what they called smoking-cessation devices as heavily as tobacco would discourage smokers from buying the devices.

“I understand the tax, but not an 85 percent tax,” said Tony Muller, 31, who owns and runs the Vaping Section Hawaii, a shop in Honolulu. “That’s going to drive people away from quitting smoking. Ten or 15 percent, I don’t have a problem.”

Sean Anderson, 37, who owns and runs Black Lava Vape in Kona, said he quit smoking several times when he used a nicotine patch, only to return to cigarettes. What got him, all seven of his employees and many of his customers to stop, he said, was switching to an electronic smoking device.

“I’ve had people come in and give me a hug,” Anderson said. “They’re like, ‘You saved my life.’ When I got into this (business), of course I wanted to make money. But it changed. That’s why I’m so passionate about this.”

Vaporizers help smokers quit because they still get the sensation of exhaling and inhaling, in addition to the nicotine buzz, Anderson said.

A 2013 study in the Harm Reduction Journal described findings similar to that anecdotal evidence. Because e-cigs replace some smoking rituals and deliver nicotine vapor without actual smoke, the authors found, the devices “might be the most promising product for tobacco harm reduction to date.”

The bills still have another committee to clear before heading to the Senate floor for a vote.

On Tuesday, lawmakers will consider a bill (SB2222) that would ban the sale of flavored tobacco products, including the cartridges for e-cigs. That measure, aimed at preventing children from taking up tobacco, would also make electronic smoking devices less appealing to adult smokers, retailers said.

“When they quit, and they actually are no longer smokers, I’ve seen guys with tears in their eyes,” Anderson said. “I realize how dramatic it sounds. But this is real life.”-

Sam Eifling is on Twitter at https://twitter.com/sameifling.

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