Despite the fact that tobacco products kill nearly half a million Americans each year, it is vaping products—which help people quit smoking—that have become a top target for health advocates. In addition to the Food and Drug Administration’s proposed rules that would create a de facto ban on the products, health advocates are trying to pass laws in the states that would increase restrictions and taxes on electronic cigarettes. Their intentions may be good, but the consequences of their proposals in states like Utah could be a disaster for public health.
Currently, Utah lawmakers are considering several proposals that would raise taxes on electronic cigarettes by more than 85 percent and ban anyone under 21 from purchasing them. Health advocates argue such changes are needed to prevent Utah’s children from becoming addicted to the nicotine in electronic cigarettes, which have become more popular than traditional cigarettes among teens.
Certainly, it’s alarming to read that “nearly 11 percent of Utah students in eighth, 10th and 12th grades reported using e-cigarettes…almost double the rate two years ago,” but there is a positive flipside to this story; the rate of traditional cigarette usage has significantly declined among this age group. According to a 2013 report by the Utah Department of Health, 3.8 percent of students in grades 8, 10, and 12 reported smoking traditional cigarettes in the last month. Compare that with the 9 percent of students in these grades that reported smoking cigarettes in 2005.
Electronic cigarettes might not be “healthy,” but they’re certainly less harmful than traditional tobacco cigarettes. For example, an independent review commissioned by Public Health England, published in August 2015, found that electronic cigarettes are at least 95 percent less harmful than traditional cigarettes and early research indicates switching to vaping from cigarettes may reverse lung damage. Even former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Richard Carmona, wrote, “Based on what we know today, there is broad agreement that e-cigarette use is significantly safer than cigarette smoking.” This sentiment was echoed by the FDA’s tobacco “czar,” Mitch Zeller, who said, “If we could get all those people [who smoke] to completely switch all of their cigarettes to noncombustible cigarettes, it would be good for public health.”
So, as my friend Jeff Stier put it, “If the point of a sin tax is to discourage behavior, why would you put a sin tax on e-cigarettes, which are the alternative to smoking?"
Good question. The enormous tax increase proposed in Utah would only make it more expensive for adult cigarette users to switch to a much safer alternative. And it will do nothing to stop kids from smoking. Rep. Paul Ray, sponsor of one of the tax bills under consideration, declared that “the whole point of my bill is to raise the price point [on electronic cigarettes] high enough that the youth don't have access.”
Teens are already smoking cigarettes and a small portion of them likely always will; raising the price on electronic cigarettes simply means that more teens will buy regular cigarettes instead of vaping—which contains less nicotine.
Luckily, there doesn’t seem to be much support for the bills in the wake of several other tax hikes in the state. This is, perhaps, why supporters felt the need to pull a stunt like busing kids to the capitol for a rally in support of the tax hike. Because if there’s one thing kids love, it’s taxes. Even if the children are sincere in their public policy demands, restricting and putting a massive tax on products that effectively help adult smokers quit a deadly addiction would be inexcusably reckless behavior for adult lawmakers.