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Bethel residents largely support addition of vapes and other non-tobacco nicotine products to local tax

Victoria Galanopoulos gestures to vapes collected from Bethel schools at a City Council meeting on February 27, 2024.
Evan Erickson
Victoria Galanopoulos gestures to vapes collected from Bethel schools at a City Council meeting on February 27, 2024.

To illustrate the widespread use of nicotine by kids in Bethel, Victoria Galanopoulos set two takeout containers full of pastel vapes confiscated from schools in town on the table as she spoke.

“Today, I went and got some vapes from a couple of different schools in town,” she said. “Those ones came from Gladys Jung. And these ones from Bethel Regional High School.”

Galanopoulos spoke at a Bethel City Council meeting on February 27, as part of a public hearing on a proposal to add vapes and other synthetic nicotine products to the city’s tobacco tax.

“They look they might be good and fruity and taste good. You can see all of them, they look like nice pastel pretty colors. But really, there's poison inside of them,” Galanopoulos said.

Under the new tax, there will be a few exemptions for products approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration as nicotine addiction treatments.

Galanopoulos is the manager of the tobacco prevention and cessation program for the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation. She told council members that vapes affect brain development, and can increase anxiety and depression.

“No electronic cigarettes, no vaping devices that have been approved [for nicotine cessation],” she said. “And as a matter of fact, that industry has not even gone to the FDA to seek approval. So that really further demonstrates that these manufacturers are not looking to help people quit using tobacco, but rather just changing their delivery method.”

Galanopoulos was one of a handful of Bethelites and other members of the public who spoke in favor of the tax. One individual spoke briefly against it.

Bethel’s tobacco tax isn’t a direct tax on customers. It’s a type of tax called an “excise tax,” paid by producers or distributors of the products.

Carrie Nyssen works for the American Lung Association, and called into the meeting.

“In Alaska, one in four high school teens are using electronic cigarettes,” Nyssen said. “Youth use of these devices is skyrocketing. And it is an epidemic for the American Lung Association. This ordinance is all about our youth. These devices are addicting yet another generation of Alaskan youth to nicotine, and we know nicotine is harmful to health.”

Youth are much more sensitive to price changes than adults – two to three times more responsive, according to Nyssen. Increasing the price of e-cigarettes by 10% can result in a 10-18% drop in teen use, she said.

“I really want to lend our support to the amendment language, which exempts FDA-approved cessation devices from taxation,” Nyssen said. “We know many tobacco users want to quit, and when they're ready to quit, we want to make sure that they have all the tools available to them, so they can be successful. So we really support the exemption of those products. Also want to emphasize that these devices [vapes] are not approved cessation devices. There's no evidence that vaping helps people kick their nicotine habit.”

Resident William Buckey is a respiratory therapist, who worked at Mayo Clinic for almost two decades with heart and lung transplant patients.

“The particle size of the vape product is much smaller,” he said during the public hearing. “And we're getting more and more younger people with advanced-stage COPD, called popcorn lung. And so we're transplanting patients that are younger and younger. “

Bethel resident Emma Nelson said she’s a mom, and supported adding vapes to the tax for the sake of kids in town.

“We don't know what types of chemicals are in there. We don't know what will hurt the next generation of leaders,” she said. “These are our people. These are our next leaders. If we can prevent it from getting into the children's hands, not only my kids’ hands, but maybe your kids or your grandkids or great grandkids, if we could, if we could keep all these type of products out of their hands and keep them safe and healthy from them, that would be a beautiful goal.”

Nelson said she felt it was a community responsibility to help keep vapes out of the hands of kids.

“I am also a former tobacco user myself, and a former nicotine user myself. If I can stop to better myself for my children then I'm really hoping other people can too because every life matters. It's not just my life that matters. It's everybody that matters,” Nelson said.

Council discussion

After the public hearing, council member Mikayla Miller said that it was clear what Bethel community members wanted – for vapes and other non-tobacco nicotine products to be added to the local tax.

“I think we talked about this last time, about how we wanted to hear what the community thought and what their opinions were,” Miller said. “And I think we heard them. I think this is what the community wants, based on this ratio of who's talked to us. And I've definitely had a lot of one-on-ones with people coming in supporting this.”

Bethel City Council member Rose Henderson expressed strong dislike for the tax. Henderson, who is a smoker, spoke out in previous meetings against adding non-tobacco nicotine products to the local tax.

“We're now playing the babysitter of every child in this town by saying, ‘Oh, we want to reduce their consumption. So let's raise the price.’ That doesn't make sense to me. It starts at home. And it's the parents’ responsibility to do that,” Henderson said.

Henderson moved to add nicotine pouches like ZYN to the list of exempted products, which she said some people use to quit smoking.

“I'm considering this a punishment, because it's aimed at a very small group of people,” Henderson said.

But Mayor Mark Springer pointed out that they’re not approved nicotine cessation devices.

“In my view, nicotine pouches may be self-medication, but we're talking about exemptions based on FDA approval for products,” Springer said.

“If people knew what was in vape juice, they would buy their kids cigarettes,” Springer said.

The new tax

In an email, Bethel’s city clerk said that many local businesses were already collecting the excise tax on non-tobacco nicotine products, following the federal definition of tobacco products. The new local ordinance went into effect on February 27, and Bethel vendors had until the end of March (March 28) to make the changes required to start applying the tax to tobacco and non-tobacco nicotine products alike.

The money goes into the city’s General Fund, although some council members have expressed a desire for the revenue from the tax to go to community programs, similar to how Bethel applies some local alcohol tax toward its Community Action Grant program.

Sage Smiley is KYUK's news director.