The Georgia General Assembly’s chief fiscal economist warned last year that Georgia might face a recession in 2020. Boy was he right, but for the wrong reasons. No one could have predicted the COVID-19 pandemic or its effects in September of 2019. Nevertheless, as a result of it, experts believe that Georgia could face a $4 billion shortfall over the next 15 months.

This means that legislators will have to get creative to balance the budget, and some are already whispering the dreaded three letter word: T-A-X. While it’s impossible to know what the potential tax proposals might look like, if other states are any indicator, e-cigarettes may be a target. However, this would be a mistake that would adversely impact public health.

As it stands, combustible cigarettes are subject to a sales tax and an additional excise tax. Governments often levy the latter to discourage the use of unhealthy products, like combustible cigarettes, which are deadly. In fact, more than 10,000 Georgians die a year from tobacco-related illnesses. But e-cigarettes are different and should be treated as such.

In fact, e-cigarettes are much less harmful than traditional combustible cigarettes because they don’t use the combustion process that releases over 7,000 chemicals––some of which are highly carcinogenic. Public Health England even stated that e-cigarettes are at least 95 percent safer than the alternatives. What’s more, e-cigarettes are the most popular tool that Americans use to quit smoking.

Of course, taxes are necessary to keep government operations running, but excise taxes, like those on cigarettes, should be relative to the product’s risk. As such, it would be unwise to raise taxes on e-cigarettes, given that it would financially disincentivize current smokers from using the less harmful alternative.

Despite e-cigarettes’ lower risk compared to combustible cigarettes, there have already been attempts to raise taxes on them here in Georgia. A measure was introduced earlier this year to do just that, but it ultimately failed on the House floor. While I can’t be certain of the bill sponsor’s intentions, they were probably noble, but if they were anything like out-of-state lawmaker’s justifications, they may have been partially based on misinformation.

In 2019, a mysterious lung illness associated with vaping swept across the country and led to 68 deaths. Once the CDC concluded its investigation, it became clear that more taxation and regulation wouldn’t have prevented this outbreak. That’s because the illness was linked to vaping black market THC oil, something that’s already illegal in Georgia; and the oil was adulterated with vitamin E acetate, which, when heated and inhaled, can be deadly.

Advocates of increased e-cigarette taxes also cite youth usage as a justification for their proposals. Let me be clear, minors absolutely should not vape. Period. However, the federal government already acted on this and raised the age to purchase such products to 21. This makes it far more difficult for youths to obtain nicotine products because their older high school friends cannot make purchases for them. Beyond this, Georgia has laws in place banning underage usage. The government just has to enforce them.

Even amid the COVID-19 outbreak, there has been misinformation, or at least unsubstantiated claims, regarding e-cigarettes. Not long ago, the FDA claimed that vaping exacerbated the coronavirus’ symptoms, but administration officials were eventually forced to backtrack their claims and admit that they had zero evidence of this. Of course, this could change in the future, but for now, the FDA has no reason to believe that e-cigarettes are an aggravating factor––although combustible cigarettes likely are.

Whether in the midst of a pandemic or in calmer times, there are sound reasons to reject increased e-cigarette taxes. They are a far less harmful alternative and can help people quit smoking. This is a positive outcome at any time––especially now because switching from combustibles to e-cigarettes may reduce the chance of a more severe case of COVID-19. Further, the more expensive that e-cigarettes become, the more likely that unregulated black-market merchants will make and sell these products––increasing the odds that tainted e-cigarette pods, like the illicit THC products that sickened people last year, will endanger more Georgians.

Ultimately, if lawmakers plan to square our tax system based on good public health outcomes, then they should be reticent of raising e-cigarette taxes.

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