Louisiana is facing a $1.6 billion deficit, according to the most recent estimates, and state lawmakers are looking at various ways to close the deficit.

One popular option among state legislators is to increase tobacco taxes. But disturbingly, some are looking to expand those taxes to include e-cigarettes.

Currently, e-cigarettes are subjected the 4 percent sales tax, plus whatever local rate is charged. If H.B. 515 – sponsored by state Rep. Harold Ritchie, D-Bogalusa – were to become law, e-cigarettes would be charged an additional excise tax of 5 cents per milliliter of liquid nicotine solution. It also provides for taxing vapor products, but it’s unclear if they’ll be subjected to excise taxes or merely charged state and local sales taxes.

While Louisiana is constitutionally obligated, like most states, to have a balanced budget at the end of its legislative session, this is a poor plan to close that deficit. It would take a valuable “stop smoking” aid out of the hands of poorer Louisianians and harm the state’s health.

One of the reasons Ritchie says he is pushing numerous tobacco tax increases is to help people, including himself, to quit smoking

He authored House Bill 119. It would take the current 36-cent cigarette tax and raise it an additional $1.18,

bringing the state’s tax to $1.54. That is said to be current national average per pack.

‘As most of you know, I’m a smoker,’ said Ritchie. ‘Started when I was a teenager.’

Ritchie said he hopes a higher tax would help him quit smoking.

He says the increase would generate $223 million in annual state revenue. Supporters of Ritchie’s bill say an increase would also mean fewer smoking related deaths.

I don’t doubt Ritchie’s sincerity in wanting to reduce tobacco-related deaths. He has watched family members die due to smoking-related illnesses. Ritchie also runs a funeral home, so I’m sure he’s overseen the funerals of many others who have died because of smoking.

I, too, have watched firsthand the carnage that tobacco-related illnesses cause. My father lost his leg due to a condition that was aggravated by tobacco use. My mother suffers from COPD and heart disease that was caused by smoking for more than 30 years. I can sympathize with the goal to reduce tobacco deaths and illnesses, but Ritchie’s tax increases on e-cigarettes is not the way.

E-cigarettes reduce the harm caused by tobacco use. When someone “vapes,” they take in nicotine without nearly as much of the carcinogens and other chemicals that cause health problems. E-cigarettes also do not produce the toxic smoke that tobacco smoke does, putting bystanders at risk. The FDA has told Congress that e-cigarettes are less harmful than smoking, so it does not make sense to tax them punitively under the excise tax structure.

If the goal is to reduce tobacco-related deaths, Ritchie and the Louisiana legislature should embrace e-cigarettes. Studies have shown that e-cigarettes have helped people quit smoking. A British study found that people who use e-cigarettes were 60 percent more likely to quit than by using nicotine patches or gum.

E-cigarettes have been found to be used primarily by smokers looking for a lower-risk alternative to get their nicotine fix. There is literally no evidence that young people use it as a gateway to smoking.

Earlier this year, New Orleans has already made a wrong-headed decision on e-cigarettes by including them in their public smoking ban. This was despite the fact that e-cigarettes do not pose the health risk to non-smokers that tobacco smoke does. The State of Louisiana should not follow in the city’s footsteps.

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