A 92 percent tax on e-cigarettes is included in the tax package approved by the House Ways and Means Committee, with expectations the tax would yield about $500,000 in new revenue. Entrepreneurs who have found a niche marketing the new smoking alternative are outraged that the price advantage they enjoy because the tobacco tax does not apply to them may end. Public health advocates see e-cigarettes as another form of vice that ought to be discouraged.
Several contradictory points are true about e-cigarettes. Meanwhile, many unknowns about the product remain to be explored.
It is true that e-cigarettes are a useful means for smokers to reduce or quit the use of tobacco. The vapor they inhale contains a nicotine dose that assuages their addiction, but without the many other carcinogenic chemicals that make tobacco smoking deadly. Smokers using e-cigarettes have said that “vaping” allows them gradually to reduce the amount they smoke, sometimes allowing them to quit altogether. This is a significant public health plus. Meanwhile, the sales of e-cigarettes have increased rapidly enough that tobacco companies, including Altria (formerly Philip Morris), have gotten into the business.
Critics say a device delivering an addictive chemical is itself harmful and could hook young people on nicotine, creating future potential smokers of tobacco. That is an outcome that Altria does not have an interest in discouraging.
Also, there are many unknowns about the health effects of the nicotine-laced vapor produced by e-cigarettes. A New York Times story described the results of a study showing that certain types of human cells exposed to e-cigarette vapors showed changes associated with cancer.
The study was only a preliminary look at the effects of e-cigarette vapor. It did not use actual people; rather, it used certain lung cells to see how they would react when exposed to vapor. The study did not show a definitive causal connection between e-cigarettes and harm to humans, but it underscored how little is actually known about the effects and how much remains for the Food and Drug Administration to learn.
In any event, we can bet that Altria and other big companies that make their billions by marketing poison to humans are interested in selling as much of the product as they can before answers are forthcoming about the dangers. That is what they did with cigarettes, even lying and concealing information long after the dangers were known.
The big corporate interests that stand to gain from the selling of e-cigarettes have Vermont and its potential tax on their radar screens. Thus, an opinion piece went out to Vermont newspapers recently from the American Council on Science and Health, which is funded by numerous corporate interests, including Altria, Chevron, Coca-Cola and McDonald’s, all of which have an interest in debunking what science tells us about their products. The council was seeking to make the argument that discouraging the use of e-cigarettes by levying a hefty tax would be harmful to public health.
Discouraging the use of tobacco is a major public health goal. E-cigarettes do that, but they are no godsend. It would be useful to maintain a price advantage for e-cigarettes in relation to tobacco, but the devices themselves present their own dangers, as a gateway to tobacco and in the unknowns still being explored. That is why a tax on them is not out of line.
Certainly, if Altria is in the business of selling e-cigarettes, it is a sign that it sees a profitable way of exploiting people’s potential for addiction. Those in Vermont who have set up mom-and-pop e-cigarette shops are providing a service for customers looking for a way to get off tobacco, and that benefit must not be discounted. But it is important not to overlook the dangers of a product that depends for its appeal on physical addiction and its unknown effects.
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