Natalie Durflinger grew up in a house with yellow walls. Not yellow from paint. Yellow from her parents’ cigarette smoke.
So she sees what she’s doing today as part of a lifelong battle with tobacco.
“I’ve become a bit of an anti-smoking zealot,” she says. “Growing up with it like that, you either become a smoker yourself, or you go all the way to fight it.”
The state of Washington doesn’t see it that way. State lawmakers may be about to tax what Durflinger’s doing as if it’s worse for public health than alcohol, marijuana or possibly cigarettes themselves.
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Durflinger is a lawyer who co-owns the sinful-sounding Steampunk Vapory Lounge. It’s a year-old spot in downtown Tacoma where patrons can “vape” — inhale vaporized juices that contain the same nicotine, but not the tar and carcinogens, as you get when you smoke cigarettes.
She says she started the lounge for the opposite of sin: “I wanted to help people stop smoking.” The tipping point came when her own daughter took up smoking a few years back.
“She had chronic bronchitis and I couldn’t believe another generation of my family was going down this same road,” Durflinger says. “I got obsessed with how to get her to quit.”
What worked, she insists, was vaping, or “e-cigarettes.” It’s a smoking substitute, kind of like chewing nicotine gum or wearing patches. Only it’s more controversial because it hasn’t been approved by the government and no one yet knows for certain whether vaping might cause some long-term health problems of its own.
“You can’t say it’s 100 percent safe, and we don’t say that,” Durflinger says. “But it’s better than smoking. Everybody knows that.”
Yet according to the latest version of a bill in the Legislature, lawmakers may whack vapories like the Steampunk with one of the largest tax hikes I’ve ever seen. Currently the nicotine juice is charged only the sales tax (so the state gets 65 cents on a typical $10 bottle with 240 milligrams of nicotine). But a drive to crack down on vaping would jack just the tax on that bottle to around $20 — a nearly 3,000 percent tax increase.
It would mean the tax would make up two-thirds of the cost of the stuff. That’s double the rate of taxation the state has settled on for other sinful items such as marijuana or alcohol. In some cases it may prove higher than the taxes on the evil conventional cigarettes themselves.
“I’m trying to help people quit smoking, and in their eyes I’m more of a sin than any of them,” Durflinger says.
Lawmakers say they’re doing this to try to stop kids from getting exposed to nicotine via the hipper new technology of vaping. That’s a legitimate concern. Police have reported students also are using the vaporizers to ingest pot and even vodka.
For politicians, there’s also the insatiable lure of the sin tax. This “vape tax” could raise an estimated $35 million a year by 2018.
I shake my head each time one of these extreme tax hikes comes around. Last year it was Gov. Jay Inslee wanting to quadruple the beer tax. If there’s worry about an untested new industry, why not propose steep, but reasonable taxes and strict regulations (kind of like voters just did with pot?). Unless the goal really is to put them under.
Durflinger says there’d be sad irony if that happens. State analysts noted that almost everyone who “vapes” is also a cigarette smoker. So the rise in vape sales directly tracks with “reduced sales of conventional cigarettes.” Slap an enormous tax on this admittedly perplexing, mysterious new business and what will you get?
“A big win for Big Tobacco,” she says.
Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or firstname.lastname@example.org