Steven Walters
The State of Politics

E-Cigarettes Lights Up Capitol Fight

Should they be taxed like cigarettes, banned from restaurants/bars or protected from local regulations?

By - Mar 30th, 2015 10:01 am
Allowing e-cigarettes in businesses “undermines the very purpose of the smoking ban,” Rep. Deb Kolste said in a statement.

Allowing e-cigarettes in businesses “undermines the very purpose of the smoking ban,” Rep. Deb Kolste said in a statement.

Add one more controversy to the long list pending in the Wisconsin Legislature: e-cigarettes.

It’s a three-sided debate: Republican Rep. Joel Kleefisch wants to tell local governments they can’t ban e-cigarettes. Democratic Rep. Debra Kolste wants to add e-cigarettes to the statewide indoor smoking ban. And others ask whether Wisconsin should follow Minnesota’s lead and levy a new tax on them.

A National Conference of State Legislatures magazine article defined e-cigarettes this way: “Electronic cigarettes – or personal vaporizers – may look like cigarettes but they don’t contain tobacco and they don’t require a match to light up. They run on batteries and convert liquor nicotine…into a vapor that is inhaled in the same way as smoke from cigarettes.”

Because some e-cig users think they are safer than cigarettes, their popularity has soared, helping to cause a drop in state taxes on tobacco cigarettes. Wisconsin does not consider e-cigarettes a tobacco product, so it charges the 5 percent sales tax on sales. That’s less than Wisconsin’s $2.52 tax on a pack of tobacco cigarettes.

Kleefisch’s party controls the Legislature. Let’s start with him.

The Oconomowoc Republican is putting the final touches on a bill pre-empting local governments from enacting their own e-cigarette bans. If it became law, it would repeal bans enacted by Madison, Onalaska, Greenfield and Ashwaubenon, according to the American Cancer Society Action Network.

“I do not believe it is government’s place to tell a private business owner they may not allow a legal activity in their establishment,” Kleefisch said in an interview. And, what e-cig users exhale is “not smoke – it’s vapor,” he added.

But several health-care advocacy groups and the League of Wisconsin Municipalities are fighting Kleefisch’s pre-emption proposal, which he said has about 15 co-sponsors.

A March 18 letter of opposition came from groups that include the American Cancer Society, American Heart Association, Wisconsin Medical Society, American Lung Association, Wisconsin Nurses Association and the Wisconsin Public Health Association. “This legislation is premature and potentially dangerous,” the letter noted. “There is little known about the health effects and long-term consequences of electronic cigarette both on users and bystanders…Preserve local governments ability to craft laws that meet the needs of their communities.”

Asked to respond to those health-care concerns, Kleefisch said he believed in the “buyer beware” theory. Someone who uses e-cigarettes should have considered any health risks.

The League of Wisconsin Municipalities says Kleefisch’s bill would undermine the rights of local government to make quality-of-life decisions for their neighbors. “Wisconsin cities and villages are granted extensive home rule powers to govern themselves without state interference,” League Lobbyist Curt Witynski wrote legislators. “The League often opposes legislation preempting municipal police power authority.”

Kolste, of Janesville, also wants the Legislature to set a statewide standard, but one that would add e-cigarettes to the statewide indoor smoking ban. The exemption of e-cigarettes from that ban is a “loophole,’ because their growth wasn’t foreseen when the smoking ban became law, she said.

Allowing e-cigarettes in businesses “undermines the very purpose of the smoking ban,” Kolste said in a statement. “Allowing people to use e-cigarettes in smoke-free ventures directly contradicts Wisconsin’s efforts to create healthier indoor environments for workers and patrons.”   Kolste also said e-cigarettes contain higher levels of harmful chemicals like nickel, lead and zinc – chemicals released into the air as secondhand smoke.

Responding to Kolste, Kleefisch said every business owner can now ban e-cigarettes, “So, what’s the fight?”There’s a national debate over how to tax e-cigarettes. One reason: E-cigarette users buy fewer tobacco cigarettes, so they pay less state taxes. Cigarette tax collections in Wisconsin are falling – from $573 million in 2014 to $545.5 million in 2017. Cigarette taxes are the fourth largest source of general-fund tax collections. This 4.7 percent drop in cigarette tax collections comes at a time when legislators are looking for extra cash to avoid cuts in aid to K-12 schools and the UW System.

In January, the National Conference of State Legislatures reported that Minnesota and North Carolina were the first states to levy new e-cigarette taxes.  Minnesota set that tax at 95% of wholesale product cost. North Carolina taxed the liquid nicotine at $0.05 per milliliter. Walker’s proposed 2015-17 budget includes no changes in how e-cigarettes are taxed.

Steven Walters is a senior producer with the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. Contact him at

4 thoughts on “The State of Politics: E-Cigarettes Lights Up Capitol Fight”

  1. Observer says:

    Nicotine is the basis for the insecticides responsible for killing off bees and other insects. Anyone who thinks inhaling it is risk-free should reconsider.

  2. Big Al says:

    Why do Republicans always champion local control, but then propose state laws to explicitly take away local control? E-cigarettes, residency rules, local property tax caps, frac sand mining, etc.

    Looks to me they don’t want “local control”; they just want “control”.

  3. Alan Selk says:

    Observer, I do hope you understand that the dose makes the poison (apparently not). What is toxic to an insect means nothing to a human. All legitimate studies have shown that nicotine, in the dose used by tobacco users, is not a cause of cancer or heart disease. Inhaling smoke from combustion is what causes disease, not nicotine. Nicotine without the smoke has about the same negative health effects as caffeine.

    There is really no doubt that electronic cigarettes are dramatically less harmful then smoking. Wisconsin residents are switching from smoking to e-cigs by the tens of thousands, and that is a very good thing for public health. Here come the democrats (and I am one) doing everything they can to stop people from making a very healthy choice for themselves.

    How did democrats, who used to work for the people with far sighted rational policies, turn into the party that works against the people with an abstinence only prohibitionist stance. This sounds like something from a hundred years ago.

  4. Observer says:

    I’m not a Democrat, well I am a democrat. I said nothing in my post about stopping you or anyone from enjoying e-cigarettes. I merely pointed out they contain nicotine which kills bees and other insects. Folks get bent out of shape over diet colas and quit them for perceived dangers. The e-cigs have many other chemicals in them and I think they will indeed prove dangerous. I’ve been around those smoking them and I wish all smokers would switch to them if they cannot quit. The artificial perfume odor is annoying though. No nanny state prying your cold dead fingers off your smokes for me. Kleefisch hasn’t come out for legalizing pot so I don’t think he cares all that much for personal liberties. Its a solution without a problem.

Leave a Reply

You must be an Urban Milwaukee member to leave a comment. Membership, which includes a host of perks, including an ad-free website, tickets to marquee events like Summerfest, the Wisconsin State Fair and the Florentine Opera, a better photo browser and access to members-only, behind-the-scenes tours, starts at $9/month. Learn more.

Join now and cancel anytime.

If you are an existing member, sign-in to leave a comment.

Have questions? Need to report an error? Contact Us