My name is Steven Greenhut. I am the Sacramento-based Western director for the R Street Institute. We’re a Washington, DC-based think tank that promotes pragmatic market-based solutions to public-policy problems. My region includes Nevada. One of our core areas is “harm reduction.”
A core tenet of harm reduction – whether dealing with drug issues, sexual behavior or tobacco use – is that policy makers shouldn’t focus on the unachievable goal of abstinence but should make it easier for people to embrace safer strategies. We all know tobacco is an addictive and dangerous product. If you want to shave 10 years off of your life, by all means start smoking cigarettes.
But the British Public Health Agency has determined that vaping products are 95 percent safer than combustible cigarettes. People who want to quit their bad habit tend to prefer vaping to medically oriented cessation devices such as patches and gum. It’s obvious why when you talk to smokers. Vaping offers a similar experience to smoking without all of the risk.
The British agency argues that policy makers ought to promote vaping. We don’t make that argument, but are dismayed at the degree to which policy makers in the United States are making it much harder and more expensive for people to make the switch through various regulatory and tax policies.
When lawmakers raise taxes on vaping, for instance, it’s not going to stop vaping, of course, as many people will buy the products online. Such policies, however, only make it more cost-effective for people who already are addicted to nicotine to just grab a pack of cigarettes at their local convenience store.
By dramatically increasing taxation and fees on all vaping products including batteries, all aspects of the vaping unit and liquids, Nevada Bill 263 would create a disincentive for people to quit smoking and would assure that these vape products are less available given that high tax rates may reduce the number of retailers. Nevada’s attempt to tax by wholesale rather than milliliter of vaping liquid, as some other states are doing, further drives up the overall cost of vaping – and not just on the product itself — and piles on yet another disincentive. This is the opposite of harm reduction. Such a policy increases the harm to smokers – and does so based on a questionable rationale.
R Street shares concerns about teen-agers starting a habit of vaping. Vaping use among kids is a real problem. But since when do we tax or further regulate the sale of legal products for adults under the thinking that doing so will make it harder for younger people to get their hands on them? Do we raise taxes on alcohol – or ban the building of new casinos – under the theory that their prevalence will be a draw to teens?
Let’s put the teen vaping epidemic in perspective. According to the University of Nevada-Reno’s Nevada Youth Behavior Risk Survey, in 2015 7.5 percent of high school students smoked cigarettes over the past 30 days. That figure dropped to 6.7 percent for 2017. In 2015, 19.3 percent of high-school kids smoked marijuana and 17.9 percent did so in 2017. Likewise, drinking usage was 33.5 percent in 2017 and down to 25.3 percent in 2017. For vaping, the numbers were 25.6 percent in 2015 and 15.5 percent in 2017.
Those figures reinforce two points. First, some young people will use adult products no matter what the laws might be. I recall the amount of drinking and marijuana usage that went on when I attended college in the 1980s and my kids relay stories from more recent years. Kids buy these substances through friends and black-market sources. People can always get what they really want, which is one enduring lesson from Prohibition.
The second point is that there may be some encouraging downward trends among youth for these adult products, even if the current level of usage remains too high. Enforcement at the retail level could always be better, however. That seems like a more reasonable and appropriate way for the state to address underage purchases than raising the taxes on everyone of legal age who buys vaping products.
Our concern, again, is harm reduction. As R Street’s harm-reduction academic, Carrie Wade, explains, “e-cigarettes have the potential to save up to 6 million lives by 2100 if only 10 percent of current smokers switch to e-cigarettes over the next 10 years.” We’re not asking lawmakers to promote these alternatives, but rather to not discourage them. Do no harm.