ATLANTA — Georgia lawmakers passed a bill during the last days of session that would add a tax to vapor products and raise the purchasing age to 21.
Legislators have had their sights on vaping restrictions for the state since last fall when the Department of Public Health issued a public health advisory following vaping-related deaths in Georgia.
As of February, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention based in Atlanta, reported more than 2,800 hospitalizations or deaths associated with e-cigarette and vaping product use. Of those, there have been 68 deaths in 29 states — six in Georgia.
Early efforts to curb teen vaping included a variety of avenues from strengthening penalties for those found selling products to minors and fining companies that target marketing to teenagers.
In 2019, federal law increased the purchasing age of tobacco products — including e-cigarettes — to 21. In hand with raising the age to comply with federal standards, the bill that passed both chambers adds a 7% excise tax on the products and requires licenses for businesses that sell them.
The additional tax along with licensing fees for product sellers could bring in as much as an additional $14.5 million in revenue, according to state estimates.
Rep. Bonnie Rich, R-Suwanee, said on the House floor that the legislation would help Georgia in its effort toward “curbing and hopefully eliminating the epidemic of our youth using and abusing vapes.”
“We need to get in front of this and start regulating this industry to protect our youth,” Rich said during hearings on the bill.
In December, lawmakers heard concern from vape show owners and researchers that adding restrictions on vape products would hinder adults who use them as alternative smoking means to help quit nicotine addiction.
Alex Clark, chief executive officer of the Consumer Advocates for Smoke-free Alternatives Association, said the bill "turned out better than it could have” and had support behind it from the industry to create a more "equitable tax scheme" for vape and e-cigarette products in Georgia.
"But, still, our view is that extra taxes on these vastly safer products that people are using to improve their lives is inappropriate,” he told CNHI. "There should not be regulation discouraging people who smoke from switching to these products, and even though this is small, it is an extra expense and it sets a precedent.”
The association opposed raising the purchase age of vapor products to 21, arguing that 18-year-olds who have access to tobacco products through other means now don’t have the option of the safer alternative.
"Georgia has already criminalized the purchase, use and possession of tobacco products for anyone under the age of 18, that's now moved to 21 and it incorporates vapor products,” Clark said. “The way that this law works, is it effectively makes possession of tobacco products by anyone under the age of 21 a vector for otherwise unnecessary interactions with law enforcement.”
Also in the final days of session, lawmakers passed a bill that regulates hemp — a legal product — in a way that allows law enforcement to make arrests if an individual transporting the product doesn’t have their license paperwork on them.