By Alan D. Viard
In a recent post that drew on my earlier work with Alex Brill and Sally Satel, I pointed out that e-cigarette taxes pose a threat to public health. Regrettably, the House Ways and Means Committee is now poised to consider a proposal (as part of subtitle I of the committee’s portion of the budget reconciliation package) that would impose a new federal e-cigarette tax. The committee should heed the mounting evidence that e-cigarette taxes have the deadly side-effect of increasing smoking.
The proposal would apply the federal tobacco tax to e-cigarettes for the first time. (The tobacco tax rate would also be doubled). Under the proposal, e-cigarettes would be taxed based on their nicotine content.
Linking the tax to nicotine is misplaced, however, because nicotine does not kill smokers — instead, smokers are killed by the tar released by combustible cigarettes. E-cigarettes, which are vaped rather than smoked, are battery-powered devices that heat a flavored solution containing nicotine and convert it into an inhalable aerosol without releasing tar. As Satel has commented, “The virtue of vaping is that it uncouples deadly smoke from nicotine, which, contrary to common impression, has no appreciable role in causing cancer.”
To be sure, nicotine is addictive and e-cigarettes are not completely safe. The FDA rightly requires e-cigarettes to carry a warning about nicotine addiction and Congress has sensibly prohibited the sale of e-cigarettes to people younger than 21.
Those concerns, however, do not warrant subjecting e-cigarettes to the same treatment as cigarettes, which kill 480,000 Americans each year. The Royal College of Physicians has concluded that the long-term health risks posed by e-cigarettes are likely to be at least 95 percent smaller than the corresponding risks posed by cigarettes.
Furthermore, e-cigarettes offer a life-saving alternative to cigarettes, enabling smokers to more easily quit their deadly habit. In my earlier post, I cited two academic research studies (here and here) that found that e-cigarette taxes have increased cigarette smoking. Another recent study, which was funded by the National Institutes of Health, similarly found that “higher e-cigarette tax rates increase traditional cigarette use.” Still another study, released earlier this month, obtained similar results.
Taxes should reduce smoking, not increase it. E-cigarette taxes pose a threat to public health.
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