Virginia Smoke Free Association
The Virginia Smoke Free Association is a trade association and advocacy group focused on tobacco harm reduction (THR) through the use of vapor products. The organization launched in July 2015 as a 501(c) 6 organization. We vetted lobbying firms and decided that Steve Baril with KVCF Solutions was the lobbying firm that best fit our needs. We started off building relationships and awareness with our Virginia legislators by educating them on what our industry is and what it is not.
We Defeated Two Bills and Had One Bill Withdrawn
In our first legislative session in 2016, we defeated two bills and had one bill withdrawn. One of these bills was an indoor air act bill and another was a tax bill that would have been detrimental to the vapor industry in Virginia. In addition to the legislative session, lobbyist Steve Baril, personally met with dozens of other General Assembly members to introduce and educate them on the vapor industry and its potential benefits of reducing the harmful effects of traditional tobacco products while also proving them educational collateral.
One Bill Was Stricken and One Bill Was Defeated
For our 2017 legislative session, there were two bills we opposed. The first was a tax bill that was stricken by the Senator that filed the bill, after meeting with our lobbyist. The other bill was an outdoor usage bill that we successfully defeated.
Garnered a Seat on the Tobacco Tax Study And Successful General Assembly Day
The 2018 legislative session was fairly quiet because the house had considerable unexpected changes. There were many freshmen delegates that were still learning the lay of the land, and it was a budget year. The VSFA had a successful General Assembly day. We divided into two groups and spoke with 13 legislators and eight legislative aides. Central to our message was the differentiation of vapor products from tobacco products, prevention of youth access, smoking cessation, and the concerns of small business owners. We successfully used our General Assembly days to heighten the legislature’s awareness of VSFA by meeting our members and presenting personal stories about helping people quit smoking. The VSFA garnered a seat at the tobacco tax study that is currently ongoing. Virginia is studying how to tax less harmful tobacco products. Our stance is it should be done along the harm minimization continuum. We feel that vapor products should fall into the same category as the patch and the gum and just pay normal state sales tax.
VA Senator Marsden thanks the VSFA for keeping vapor products out of the hands of children
2019 PROVIDED TO BE QUITE CHALLENGING
With 2018 being a fairly quiet year, we anticipated that this was the “quiet before the storm,” and we were right. 2019 has been our most challenging year yet with 11 vapor related bills. Several were mirror bills which got combined. We fought a hard fight against the two T-21 bills in Virginia. These bills came from the highest levels from both sides of the aisle. We spoke in both the House and Senate committees against these bills to no avail. There was a lineup of Big Tobacco and public health groups that spoke in favor of the bills. It was crystal clear at the committee hearings that the fix was in and that both bills were going to sail through. Our lobbyist had meetings with several of the bill sponsors to attempt to get a carve out for traditional vape shops as well as to attempt to get a grandfather clause but neither of the bill sponsors were willing to budge. We fought the good fight but we took our first defeat here in Virginia since we formed. The good news is that we defeated a 40% wholesale tax bill that would have decimated the industry in Virginia like it did in Pennsylvania. This was a huge win! We also garnered respect from many Senators and Delegates by supporting several school related bills to help keep vapor products off school grounds and out of the hands of minors. The VSFA was recognized from the Senate gallery. We were introduced to the Senate Floor by Senator David Marsden, Fairfax County. We are hoping this support will help us with the Tax Study in 2019
THE VAPER INDUSTRY WAS UNDER INTENSE SCRUTINY
The vapor industry entered the 2020 General Assembly session under intense scrutiny. The misinformation and hysteria surrounding the claims of respiratory ailments, which were ultimately linked to illicit THC vaping cartridges, provoked an anti-vaping sentiment among many Virginia legislators. This, coupled with the new leadership’s desire to increase taxes on business, set the stage for the 2020 session. Consequently, Virginia Smoke Free Association (“VSFA”) faced an unprecedented onslaught of bills seeking to tax or regulate the vapor industry out of existence. Despite credible evidence to the contrary, many legislators continued to blame public health concerns, such as the THC-linked respiratory ailments and the youth vaping “epidemic,” on flavored vapor products. Four bills were introduced to restrict the sale of flavored vapor products, three of which would have banned non-tobacco flavored products altogether. These bills could have been fatal to Virginia’s vapor industry. Thankfully, VSFA defeated these bills. Bills were also introduced in the House and Senate to impose a 39% wholesale on all “tobacco products,” including liquid nicotine and vaping hardware (i.e., batteries, wicks, etc.). Because these bills would have imposed or increased the wholesale tax on all “tobacco products,” including cigarettes, cigars, moist snuff, and hookah, VSFA teamed up with other industry stakeholders to defeat these bills. Regrettably, Governor Northam introduced in his budget a $0.066/mL wholesale tax on liquid nicotine (Budget Item 3-5.21). VSFA ardently opposed this new tax during the session and all the way through to the April 22 veto session. By that time, the COVID-19 pandemic had caused an unanticipated shortfall in the State’s budget, and, as a result, the General Assembly had no interest in overriding the Governor’s tax increase. We will be actively involved with the Tobacco Tax Study Committee during the off season to help bolster our opposition to any additional taxes or restrictions on vapor products for the foreseeable future.