OKLAHOMA CITY — With more people turning to smoke-free, electronic cigarettes to help quit smoking, a new industry is blossoming across Oklahoma: Mom-and-pop stores that sell “vapor” products that use a heating element to convert nicotine into an inhalable water vapor.
But many of these small businesses fear big tobacco companies are trying to cut them out of this growing market and have found themselves engaged in a political fight at the state Capitol.
“I was a mechanic for 15 years and then I got into this business,” said John Durst, who has opened two stores in the last year — OKC Vapes and Norman Vapes — with his wife. “Now I feel like a politician. I’ve learned more about the political system in the last six weeks than I knew all of my life.”
State Sen. Rob Johnson introduced a bill this session, supported by two of the nation’s largest tobacco companies, that would limit access to e-cigarettes and other vapor products to those over the age of 18 and would limit taxes on those products to 5 cents per unit. Taxes would be capped at one-tenth of the state tax imposed on a pack of cigarettes.
The bill drew dozens of members of the self-described “vapor community” to the halls of the state Capitol to oppose the measure, many of whom had vapor product inhalers dangling from their necks and T-shirts with the names of their shops emblazoned across them. The turnout helped lead to the bill being killed in a House committee on April 9.
But the bill has been resurrected by Johnson, R-Edmond. The latest version, which was adopted last week as an amendment in the Senate on a narrow, 23-22 vote, would define vapor products as “tobacco products” under state law, a move fiercely opposed by the vapor industry.