The state’s first vaping tax took effect on January 1, just nine weeks ago. On Thursday, the House approved a bill to more than quadruple it. But the revenue is unlikely to be the bill’s biggest effect.
House Bill 1699 raises the tax on the liquid used for e-cigarette vaping to 40% of the wholesale price. The current rate is 8% for open systems (fill your own) and 30 cents per milliliter for closed systems (cartridges).
On a 12-8 vote, the House Ways & Means Committee asserted that the increase was justified because of the potential negative health effects of nicotine contained in vaping liquid.
“The nicotine delivered by electronic cigarettes is a toxic addictive chemical derived from the tobacco plant,” Rep. Richard Ames, D-Jaffrey, wrote for the committee. “We know it is addictive. But we don’t yet fully understand the extent of the damage to vital human organs, particularly the lungs and heart, that may be caused by its inhalation through the vaping process. We don’t yet know its effect on the human brain, particularly its effect on the still developing brain of a young person.”
But nicotine researchers have repeatedly pointed out that nicotine should be treated as less harmful than tobacco smoking.
“We need to de-demonize nicotine,” Ann McNeill, professor of tobacco addiction at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience at King’s College London, told Scientific American in 2015.
The reason is that switching from cigarette smoking to vaping produces dramatic reductions in health risks and has been associated with declines in tobacco use.
A study McNeil published in 2018 concluded that the health benefits of switching to e-cigarettes were so profound that e-cigarettes should be prescribed by doctors as smoking-cessation tools.
“When people smoke tobacco cigarettes, they inhale a lethal mix of 7,000 smoke constituents, 70 of which are known to cause cancer. The constituents in tobacco smoke that cause the harm are either absent or at much lower levels… in e-cigarettes so we are confident that they are substantially less harmful than cigarette smoking,” McNeil told the BBC.
“People smoke for the nicotine — but contrary to what the vast majority believe, nicotine causes little if any of the harm. The toxic smoke is the culprit and is the overwhelming cause of all the tobacco-related disease and death.”
The health argument being used for HB 1669 perpetuates the misconception that there’s little difference in the health risk between tobacco smoking and vaping.
In fact, there’s a huge difference, and a growing body of research shows that vaping helps smokers quit, leading to improved health outcomes. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine last year found that e-cigarettes “were more effective for smoking cessation than nicotine-replacement therapy, when both products were accompanied by behavioral support.”
The presence of nicotine in vaping liquid plays a significant role in helping smokers make the switch from tobacco to less-harmful e-cigarettes. A 2016 National Institutes of Health study and a 2015 Society for Research in Nicotine and Tobacco study found that smokers preferred e-cigarettes with higher nicotine content, suggesting that e-cigarettes with higher levels of nicotine helped people quit smoking by offering a satisfying substitute for tobacco. E-cigarettes with lower nicotine levels were less effective.
Were the state leaving people alone to make their own decisions, the health outcomes would be a matter of individual choice. But in this case legislators are attempting to use the tax code for the express purpose of changing people’s behavior.
That puts the government on the hook for the outcomes. Given the strong link between vaping and smoking cessation, any government effort to discourage vaping would likely lead directly to worse health outcomes for smokers.
Because the research showing vaping to be an effective smoking cessation method is well publicized, skeptics might conclude that a more powerful motivation for such a tax would be the revenue. (As with nicotine, collecting and spending tax revenue can be habit forming.)