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New vape laws, tax likely headed to the governor's desk

The assortment of vape products sold by Capitol Smoke Shop.
Courtesy of Michael Midgette
Capitol Smoke Shop
The assortment of vape products sold by Capitol Smoke Shop.

Two bills and a new tax on vape products are likely coming out of Virginia’s 2024 legislative session.

“And you’re consuming nicotine. It’s not healthy. You know that [and] you’re going to do it anyway,” said Michael Midgette who owns a handful of vape and glass shops, including one in Richmond called Capitol Smoke.

Midgette heard about new bipartisan efforts in Virginia’s House and Senate, which will limit his ability to sell vape tobacco products and he’s less than thrilled by the proposals.

Among the bills with a presumably higher impact is one that would create a new state registry that would limit sales to only FDA-approved products.

“It's an important step to address childhood vape use,” said Delegate Rodney Willet, a cosponsor of the registry effort. The Henrico-based delegate says it would still open the door to sell plenty of vape products for consumers, but Midgette said the trendiness of the industry makes it hard for any one brand to stay popular.

“It’s an evolving business. There’s one brand everyone wants, then a few months later people want a different one,” Midgette said. “So, you’ve got to sell what’s popular.”

Midgette also pushed back on the FDA approval requirement, suggesting the products the federal government had approved represent a small and low-quality collection of brands that few are interested in.

Another bill from Delegate Alfonso Lopez would block any new shops from opening within 1000 feet of a school or daycare center.

“We’re finding that these vape shops and stores are popping up everywhere,” the northern Virginia Delegate told Radio IQ.

Midgette noticed the Commonwealth’s numerous vape shops as well; most of his shops are in North Carolina, but he said his vape sales suffer in Richmond due to competition.

But the business owner also noted a carve out made in Lopez’s bill for convenience stores and gas stations. He wondered whether it was about the sale of vapes or the flashy neon signs that may have become an eyesore.

“If you’re making exceptions, you’re just trying to stop a store you don’t like to look at and that’s not a good, free market practice,” Midgette said.

But Lopez stressed the new rules were focused on addressing public health, especially in the wake of theWorld Health Organization asking for more limits on vapes.

“I worked in the Small Business Association and understand the problems with overregulating small businesses,” he said, pointing to his federal post during the Obama administration. “But weighing that against the impact vaping is having on kids; it’s the right thing to do.”

Last on the list is a new six-cent-per-mil of nicotine tax on vape products currently in the Senate budget.

“Six cents? That’s nothing,” Midgette joked, noting North Carolina added a five-cent tax already, and it’s handled by his distributors before being passed down to consumers.

But the tax has bipartisan support, at least from Eastern Shore Republican Robert Bloxom. He pitched local authority to create a new tax on the product, but it was killed earlier in the session.

“I’m not sold vapes are not harmful, it’s like a cigarette," he said, unphased by the death of his bill but open to the budget language. "Therefor should pay the same cigarette-type tax.”

And while Midgette doesn’t vape, those who do are similarly unimpressed by the new proposed rules.

One General Assembly Building vaper who asked to remain anonymous said they’re likely to have little impact on their use of the products. That counts for the FDA-approval rule too. "I’d rather have the company that’s been sued because they’ll be looking after their own product more,” the anonymous vaper joked, suggesting Midgette's assessment of the products’ dangers having little impact on users was true.

Still, the vaper said they started vaping in high school, at the age of 16, getting their vapes from a gas station that didn’t bother to ID. And they said they still see shops selling banned, flavored vapes with Canadian warning labels on them.

Legislators argue the new rules could stop other kids from following in the anonymous vaper’s path. And increased oversight included in Willet's bill may catch those breaking tax or import laws.

Midgette said he would comply with any rules that get passed down. But they won't keep the vaper from vaping in the future.

“Hell no,” they said. “Why do you think I’m addicted?”

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Brad Kutner is Radio IQ's reporter in Richmond.