Chris Hughes is famous among vaping advocates. The former president of the Pennsylvania SFATA chapter has been a whirlwind of activity defending the vape vendors in his state — meeting legislators, recruiting members, raising money, writing op-eds, and generally doing everything possible to protect and defend vaping in one of the country’s largest states.
He’s the kind of guy people enjoy talking to. He’s honest and completely devoid of slickness or double-talk. You could just as easily imagine Chris working as a political lobbyist or as a bartender. He gets along with everyone. People like him. And he knows a lot — especially about vaping politics and legislation.
He’s good at what he does. During his tenure as state SFATA president, the organization held off many attempts to advance taxes and other restrictions. Just before he handed the SFATA reins to Dave Norris — owner of Blue Door Vaping in Mechanicsburg — Chris spoke with the Pennsylvania Speaker of the House. He left their meeting confident that there would be no draconian vapor tax proposed this year. He went on vacation. He even relaxed a little.
On his way back home, all hell broke loose. Messages and calls started pouring in.
You probably remember the story. In a last-minute budget deal, Republicans threw in with Democrats (and the Democratic governor) to pass a tax on vapor products they claimed would raise $13.3 million. Of course, the state will collect precisely nothing from closed stores.
Most state legislators don’t even slightly understand the product or the businesses that sell it. “One thing legislators seem to be having a hard time grasping,” says Chris, “is that these are the only products that vape shops typically sell. They aren’t selling cigarettes or sandwiches or gas. There’s no place to make up the loss of profit in most cases.”
If I have $100,000 worth of inventory in my shop on Oct. 1, I have to cut a check to the state for $40,000. Many small businesses, including mine, simply can't afford this.
Despite all the talk I hear from Gov. Wolf and lawmakers about job creation, this tax seems designed to do one thing: kill off Pennsylvania's vape shop industry and the 1,500 full-time jobs it provides. As many as 92 percent of Pennsylvania vape shops are expected to shut down across the state.
And for what? After being rushed through with little debate, the tax is estimated to generate only $13.3 million, a mere two percent of the revenue needed to balance the state budget.
Can you guess how much this tax will raise from a store that shuts down? Not a dime. Both the sales tax my customers pay and the income tax I pay will also dry up.
Ironically, the state could end up collecting less money with this tax than without it.
The law’s threat to punish individual vapers for possessing untaxed products hasn’t exactly endeared state legislators to the vaping community either. Between the state’s tax and the federal FDA’s attempt to completely destroy independent vapor businesses, Pennsylvania vapers are mad. Who could blame them?
Chris Hughes owns a vape shop, and like a lot of Pennsylvania shop owners, he’s going to have to close the doors to Fat Cat Vapor near Williamsport before October 1, the date the state will force every vapor business to do an inventory and pay a 40 percent tax on all onhand merchandise. He has no intention of giving the state even a nickel of unjust tax revenue, so he’s packing it in.
Jeff Wheeland, the state representative for the district where Fat Cat is located, has proposed a possible fix, but Chris can’t count on that right now. If the amendment doesn’t get anywhere, shop owners open on Oct. 1 will be on the hook for a lot of money. “If the Wheeland amendment advances and becomes law rapidly enough, I could and would reopen the shop.”
“But this tax really introduces total chaos into the market in PA,” he says. “It’s like flipping over a chess board, and scattering the pieces everywhere. There’s no telling what things will look like after.”
But thinking about his future, he’d been considering another idea. Why not run for the legislature? Why not cause some grief for the representative in his home district who had voted for the budget bill that included the vapor tax? It was too late already to collect signatures to file and get on the ballot, so he’d have to run as a write-in candidate. That’s not usually a formula for winning, but still…
Rep. Garth Everett, the incumbent, has no other opponent. In fact, he’s never had an opponent in any of his five elections, so the state party would be unlikely to consider any need to support him. The money would probably already be allocated elsewhere. In 2014, Everett won with hardly more than 3,000 votes. Chris Hughes knows a lot of people. A lot of people like him. His name is easy to remember and spell. And a small business owner being forced to close by an unjust tax — that’s a great story.
This might just be a winnable election.
A few weeks later, he has a campaign committee, a sharp website, and two Facebook pages. Famous political figures are talking about his campaign. But he needs money. “I love Facebook likes, but you can’t buy yard signs with them,” he said. “I’d really like to see vendors step up and be more proactive in participating in their own survival.”
“The district is very manageable as far as number of voters, and the geographics of the towns,” Hughes told me. “I’ve also lived here for 48 years and know lots of people. The one critical question is if I can raise enough money rapidly enough to do media buys, hire a professional campaign manager, and meet all the other expenses required for an effective campaign. Being on the brink of unemployment seriously limits my opportunity to self finance.”
He makes a strong case for why vapers and vendors should donate to his campaign. Look at it like this: Pennsylvania is the sixth largest state in the country. Legislators everywhere will watch how this tax controversy plays out. If some shops close, but others stick it out, and if there’s no noticeable political fallout, other states will likely copy what they see as a successful tax idea.
But imagine if a five-term incumbent legislator gets beaten — by a write-in candidate who owns a vape shop. That could send shock waves through state legislatures around the country that are considering vapor taxes.
“What I’m trying to accomplish here could be used as an object lesson to state legislators in every state if successful,” he says. “Considering the size and scope of the industry, the amount of money required for this project is miniscule, but the payoff would be huge.”
Chris Hughes estimates he only needs $50,000 to make a serious run. “The reality is if under five percent of vendors in the U.S. donated $100 each to this campaign, we’d have plenty of money to get this done.” (If there is money left over, Pennsylvania has specific requirements for how it must be disposed of. Chris himself doesn’t get any of it.)
While working in his shop, he’s been organizing and getting his name out there. He’s written some terrific op-eds for papers around the state. And he’s planning to work full time on the campaign after his store closes on Sept. 24. That will give him about six weeks to knock on doors and make phone calls. He already has lots of contacts in his area. And “I have some very capable volunteers that have committed to help,” he told me.
“We’re also holding a fundraiser/mixer this week, and am very honored to be hosting Grover Norquist who founded Americans for Tax Reform,” he said. “I think he is fond of what I’m trying to achieve, and I’m very flattered that a historic figure like him would think enough of me and the chances of my campaign to travel up here and participate in my event.”
Norquist recently attended the Burning Man festival in Nevada. He was photographed wearing a Fat Cat Vapor t-shirt.
Speaking of t-shirts, Chris has some really nice campaign shirts you can snag with a $100 donation. They’ll probably be a status item on the Right To Vape Tour, which will be making a stop in Pennsylvania in October to support his campaign.
“I’ve also been doing some periodic Facebook live video feeds where people can ask questions,” says Chris. “And I’ll be expanding interactions with people, and business owners particularly, in the district soon.”
Despite the obstacles his business faces, Chris Hughes is optimistic — and defiant. He wants to solve the problem of the vapor tax and reopen his store, but he also wants to teach the Pennsylvania legislature a lesson. He’s planning to raise hell in the state capitol if he’s elected.
But he needs his fellow business owners to step up and help make it happen. “I think this is possibly one of the biggest bang-for-the-buck advocacy efforts going on in the US right now,” says Chris. He convinced me.
How about you?