A fairly good legislative prediction to make right now is that vaping will likely be an issue cropping up in several state legislatures across the nation in the coming year, as the rise in use of e-cigarettes has taken a dramatic — even deadly — turn in recent months.
The issue can be complex in political terms. The most recent example is at the White House, where President Donald Trump has backed away from a vow made in September to ban flavored e-cigarettes, which are popular with young users. His original statement was made in the wake of a startling number of deaths reported during the summer and early fall. However, it’s been reported that the president is coming under pressure from pro-vaping groups (and possible political advisors) claiming that such a ban could alienate some voters next year.
All this comes after at least 47 people have died from vaping-related lung damage, and more than 2,200 overall cases have been reported. The cases have been found in every state except Alaska.
It also comes at a time when the use of e-cigarettes is rising dramatically, especially among teens. A report last month in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that more than 1 in 4 high school students — or about 5 million kids — use flavored e-cigarettes monthly, which is an increase from last year. Meanwhile, it’s now estimated that more than 10 million adults use e-cigarettes regularly. (By contrast, more than 30 million Americans smoke cigarettes, but that number has been falling for years.)
With Washington unwilling, at least for the moment, to take the lead, what can states do?
A report on the NBC News website this week indicated that some states are turning to what was termed a “tried and true” approach: hiking taxes on vaping products, thus hitting the users in the pocketbook.
For instance, Vermont recently approved a 92% wholesale tax on vaping products, which makes regular use all but prohibitive financially.
It’s the same approach that has been used with cigarettes (see the trend mentioned above), with the tax hike imposed not to generate more revenue but rather to drive people away from smoking at all.
“The World Health Organization estimates that a 10% rise in prices causes overall smoking rates to drop about 4% in high-income countries,” NBC reported. “Some states are relying on this strategy to work again — this time to discourage consumers, especially teenagers and young adults, from using e-cigarettes and vaping products.”
So far, at least 20 states and the District of Columbia have passed e-cigarette taxes. It’s still too early to determine the impact, but the hope — based on past experience — is that it will put a serious dent in vaping’s popularity.
“There are so many parallels here, and that’s why we’re taxing them like cigarettes,” noted Richard Auxier of the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center.
However, he also warned that the vaping phenomenon “is new, and we should all just take a minute to know that it all might play out a little differently.”
But some state-level lawmakers will probably choose to act sooner.
In one sense, raising taxes could be seen as a win-win scenario, even by lawmakers who oppose taxation in general. If the higher taxes on vaping products produce a decline in usage, it could rightfully be seen as a victory for the general welfare of the public. If they fail to make a significant dent in usage, the result would be more revenue.
Of course, there is a third, more ominous and equally logical possibility: that higher taxes might compel e-cigarette users to turn to black-market products, which have been suggested as one of the culprits in the recent rash of lung illnesses and deaths.
Nevertheless, raising taxes on e-cigarette products may be the most practical and most direct approach lawmakers can take to address this issue. As such, it will definitely bear watching in Pierre and Lincoln this winter.