Local vaping retailers told the Omaha City Council on Tuesday that they worry some smokers who have switched to vaping might switch back to cigarettes if the city taxes vaping.

Council President Chris Jerram has proposed applying the city’s 3% occupation tax on tobacco to vaping products. His aim: boosting public health and applying the tobacco tax fairly.

Tim Bowen, operations director for Alohma, one of Omaha’s largest vaping shops, said his company and others want to help smokers quit.

He suggested that the city shouldn’t tax vaping products as tobacco products but should instead restrict where and how vaping products are sold to keep young people from starting.

“We are trying to help people,” Bowen said.

Council member Brinker Harding quizzed retailers on the costs of cigarettes versus vaping. E-cigarette retailers said cigarettes would still cost more, even if the city taxes vaping.

But former State Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh, lobbying for the retailers, said his industry fears a cascading effect of possible new state and local taxes.

Expanding the city tobacco tax to vaping would bring in about $1 million annually. The tax now generates $3.5 million to $3.7 million a year.

Jerram has said he’d like to earmark some of the new revenue for local research on the effects of vaping. Council member Rich Pahls said he’d like to see that in the ordinance. Councilwoman Aimee Melton said she might want to see smoking cessation gum and patches exempted from the tax.

Dr. Adi Pour of the Douglas County Health Department testified in favor of the broadened tax, citing research showing that making tobacco products more expensive reduces youth smoking.

Pour said she and the Douglas County Board of Health would like to see the city set aside 5% of revenue from the expanded tax for smoking cessation and more data on vaping.

Vaping-related illnesses have been reported by 1,479 people in 49 states, Pour said. Of those, Nebraska has had 11 known cases. Five reported vaping only nicotine, Pour testified Tuesday. Five reported vaping THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. And one reported vaping both.

Nebraska recorded its first vaping-related death in May.

Mark Welsch of GASP, the Group to Alleviate Smoking Pollution, welcomed Jerram’s proposed tax but said he wants to see the city increase the tax from 3% to more than 10%.

The council expects to vote on the tax proposal during its Oct. 29 meeting.

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