Following a national trend, Maine lawmakers decided in June to raise taxes on tobacco products and e-cigarettes. Rep. Joyce McCreight, the bill’s sponsor, argued, “This tax increase must apply to all tobacco products. To be effective in prevention and cessation, we need a comprehensive approach to tobacco control and that means equivalent taxes, whether we are talking about combustible cigarettes, pipe tobacco, small and large cigars or e-cigarettes.”
But by lumping e-cigarettes in with combustible tobacco products, Maine policymakers have lost sight of the bigger picture. So-called “sin” taxes typically serve two objectives. One is to generate government revenue. The other is to discourage unhealthy behavior.
Augusta’s financial assault on vaping achieves neither goal. Taxing e-cigarettes is expected to generate relatively little revenue, while raising the cost of vaping is likely to deter smokers who would have switched to e-cigarettes but for the tax increase.
While the notion that e-cigarettes and regular cigarettes pose similar health risks is widespread, the scientific evidence actually indicates that e-cigarettes (while far from innocuous) are not nearly as dangerous as combustible cigarettes. In 2015, Public Health England, after reviewing hundreds of studies, concluded that e-cigarettes are 95 percent less harmful than conventional cigarettes, largely because vaping does not produce the toxic tar and poisonous gasses released from burning tobacco.
Many other health organizations, like the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine, the Royal College of Physicians, and American Cancer Society, have acknowledged that e-cigarettes have the potential to help tobacco smokers rid themselves of a lethal habit that claims the lives of 480,000 Americans each year.
A recent randomized trial suggests e-cigarettes are effective smoking cessation aids, with success rates nearly double those of current FDA-approved nicotine-replacement products like gum and nicotine patches.
And there’s clear evidence that the rising popularity of e-cigarettes has contributed to plunging smoking rates among both adults and teens. In 2016, for example, 2.6 million e-cigarette users were former smokers, the vast majority of whom had quit smoking since e-cigarettes became widely available in the early 2010s.
Given that 17 percent of adult Mainers smoke — a higher rate than the national average — at a cost of $1.5 billion to our economy, the public health benefits of promoting e-cigarettes as an alternative to cigarettes could be enormous. A 2018 study in the journal Tobacco Control projected that if vaping largely replaced cigarette use in the U.S. over the next decade, as many as 6.6 million premature deaths would be averted and the average 15-year-old would live 6 months longer.
And while expecting e-cigarettes to eradicate smoking entirely isn’t realistic, these new products may be the best chance many smokers have of quitting for good.
Even those seeking (rightly) to deter non-smoking teens from experimenting with e-cigarettes should be concerned that levying high taxes on vaping may actually drive more young people to use regular cigarettes, since the relative cost of regular cigarettes will drop.
Besides, there are more effective, targeted ways of protecting adolescents from vaping. Banning the use of e-cigarettes in schools, enforcing age limits on purchases, and restricting youth access to retail establishments are better ways to curb teen vaping without making it more difficult for adult smokers to use a safer alternative.
Maine’s decision to make it more expensive for smokers to use e-cigarettes, while well-intentioned, is short-sighted and counterproductive.