SALT LAKE CITY - A proposal in the Utah Legislature that would tax electronic cigarettes at the same rate as other tobacco products has put the state at the forefront of a national movement to regulate the increasingly popular devices.
More than 35 proposals calling for some type of regulation of electronic cigarettes have been introduced this year in legislatures across the country, but Utah seems to be the only state currently proposing that they be taxed like regular tobacco, said Karmen Hanson, a tobacco policy analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Hanson is unaware of any state with a law like this on the books.
Often called "e-cigarettes," the battery-powered devices heat a liquid nicotine solution and create vapor that users inhale. Their popularity has spiked in recent years.
First marketed overseas in 2002, e-cigarettes first became widely available in U.S. in 2006. There are several million users worldwide today, up from a few thousand in 2006. Analysts estimate sales could double to $1 billion in 2013.
Some companies have even started running TV commercials, including an ad during this year's Super Bowl that showed a man using an electronic cigarette made by an Arizona-based company.
Many states have been waiting for the Food and Drug Administration to come out with regulations before passing their own laws, but states seem to be growing impatient, Hanson said.
"The more popular they become, a more prominent public policy issue they become," Hanson said. "Without federal regulation, it's left up to the states."
The FDA's current stance is that the health impact of electronic cigarettes is unknown because it has not been properly studied. There is speculation that the agency will take over regulatory authority of the devices this year.
The Utah measure's sponsor, Republican Rep. Paul Ray, says e-cigarettes should not be considered healthy.
"They're trying to sell them as nicotine replacement therapy. It is not," Ray said this week. "It is not an FDA-approved nicotine replacement therapy. There's medications. There's patches. There's things for that. This is not one of them."
The electronic cigarettes would be taxed at 86 percent, Ray said. That's the same as Utah's rate on cigars, roll-your-own tobacco or pipe tobacco.
On cigarettes, the state tax is generally a flat $1.70 for a pack of 20 smokes.