Discouraging cigarette smokers from switching to safer products is like dissuading people from using seatbelts: It will result in widespread, negative public health consequences. Yet a recently drafted bill in Mississippi would do just that.
Sen. David Blount, D-Hinds recently filed SB 2537 which would impose a special new tax on alternative nicotine products, including e-cigarette liquids. The impetus of Sen. Blount’s bill is not entirely apparent, but it may be connected to a news conference held by Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood last year, where Hood expressed concern that too many minors are vaping. In response, he suggested that the state treat certain, less-harmful alternatives to traditional cigarettes — including e-cigarettes — no differently than any other tobacco products.
While underage vaping rates are far too high, Hood’s well-intentioned recommendation and Blount’s bill are not the answer Mississippians need. Treating e-cigarettes like other tobacco products will have unintended consequences that harm public health.
As it stands, over 22 percent of Mississippians smoke traditional, combustible cigarettes. This is one of the highest smoking rates in the nation, and the consequences haven’t been pretty: More than 5,000 Mississippians die each year from smoking-related diseases, and the related health care expenses topped $1 billion in 2009 alone.
Thankfully, e-cigarettes can help mitigate some of traditional smoking’s negative impact. E-cigarettes are one of today’s most promising products for smokers who wish to quit or rely on safer alternatives. The combustion process that releases thousands of chemicals — some of which are carcinogenic — in traditional cigarettes is not used in vaping. This makes e-cigarettes a much less-hazardous option.
Beyond this, many institutions have looked into e-cigarettes’ benefits relative to traditional cigarettes, and the results are encouraging. Public Health England, for instance, found that e-cigarettes are at least 95 percent safer than their combustible counterparts. Here in the United States, the former surgeon general likened the effects of e-cigarettes to those of other quit tools like nicotine patches, and the American Cancer Society acknowledged that, when compared to traditional cigarettes, e-cigarettes present a reduced health risk.
E-cigarettes are not only a safer alternative to traditional cigarettes, they also help smokers give up the habit. Recent data show that e-cigarettes are the most effective quit tool available. While it is not clear how many Americans have quit smoking by turning to vaping, a study in the United Kingdom found that thousands of British people have already given up smoking by relying on e-cigarettes. Given this reality, it’s safe to assume that many Mississippians have also successfully abandoned cigarettes thanks to these electronic alternatives.
Keeping e-cigarette prices low is one of the keys to ensuring that vaping continues to aid the people of Mississippi. Studies suggest that, unlike traditional cigarettes, e-cigarettes are vulnerable to price changes. This means that as e-cigarette prices rise, habitual cigarette-smokers will be less likely to vape as an alternative to smoking or as a means to quit cigarette usage altogether. As such, a tax increase on e-cigarettes would discourage the use of this safer substitute and ultimately harm public health.
What’s more, raising taxes on e-cigarettes would effectively limit their accessibility for many Mississippians. Mississippi has the nation’s highest poverty rate — at over 20 percent of the state’s population. Hiking taxes on safer alternatives that can help Mississippians quit smoking may make these products too costly for many underprivileged Mississippians to afford. This would do a great disservice to the state’s residents.
If Blount and Hood’s goal is to combat underage vaping, then Mississippi already has tools at its disposal to do so. It is illegal for minors to purchase e-cigarettes; officials must simply execute this and other laws by ensuring that retailers check IDs. They should also make sure to adequately enforce and advertise bans on e-cigarettes in educational facilities to cut down further on youth vaping.
There are ways to dissuade underage teens from using e-cigarettes without punishing health-conscious adult Mississippians with a tax that will adversely affect public health. Rather than pursuing this tax, the state should reward improved behavior among adults with lower taxes while advocating proposals that will discourage teens from using addictive products. The simple fact is that many lives depend on it.
Image from Shutterstock