There is a movement afoot in New Mexico to treat e-cigarettes and related nicotine-vapor products as if they pose the same risks for addiction and potentially fatal tobacco-attributable illness as cigarettes. The movement already was underway when I last met with the New Mexico Tobacco Settlement Revenue Oversight Committee two years ago and, as House Bill 282 — currently before the state Legislature — makes clear, little has changed in the interim.

The problem is that the movement’s central thesis is simply not true. E-cigarettes have no tobacco and produce no tar or products of combustion. While no nicotine-delivery product can be considered totally risk-free, we now know — as even the Office of the Surgeon General admits — that e-cigs are far less hazardous than cigarettes. Not only are they far less hazardous, but they are far less addictive and have been shown to be a gateway away from cigarettes for both teen smokers and teens who otherwise would have become smokers.

American tobacco-control policy — as promulgated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration and other regulatory agencies — continues to mislead the public by considering only theoretical harms, without considering the now substantial and rapidly growing scientific literature showing major personal and public-health benefits from e-cigs. These include far lower risks for smokers who switch and rapidly decreasing cigarette use by both teens and adults.

In November 2015, I presented the New Mexico New Mexico Tobacco Settlement Revenue Oversight Committee with a summary of the evidence that was then available about the risks and benefits to smokers, as well as the benefit of teens not being recruited to smoking. There have been multiple additional literature summaries over the past two years, as well as policy documents from the United Kingdom’s Royal College of Physicians and Canada’s University of Victoria, among others, that have drawn even stronger conclusions about the public-health benefits of tobacco harm reduction. Even the surgeon general and the American Academy of Pediatrics, whose public stances remain hostile to e-cigarettes, have admitted considerable uncertainty about whether that stance is the correct one.

Machine-made tobacco cigarettes are, by a very wide margin, the most hazardous and most addictive tobacco-related products. The health risks posed by the smokeless tobacco products currently available on the American market are significantly less than 5 percent of the risk posed by cigarettes, while e-cigarettes and pharmaceutical nicotine products like patches and gum almost assuredly pose less than 1 percent of the risk of cigarettes.

Thus, defining e-cigs as tobacco products and extending substantial tax increases to smokeless tobacco products, as proposed in HB 282, will do more harm than good from a public-health perspective. It will drive cigarette smokers to continue smoking, rather than switch to lower-risk and less-addictive products.

The New Mexico Legislature should move ahead with the cigarette tax proposed in HB 282, but it should hold off on the proposed redefinition of e-cigs as tobacco products or extending the tax to all other tobacco-related products. For the sake of New Mexicans’ public health, it’s essential that the revenue oversight committee takes the opportunity to review what is known about the risk and addictiveness of these other products.

Image by Jiri Flogel

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