The debate over taxing e-cigarette products could pick up in the new year as public health officials look for innovative ways to curb the teen vaping epidemic.
An estimated 3.6 million youth reported vaping or using e-cigarettes in the past year, representing the fastest increase of an illegal substance among teenagers, according to the most recent federal data.
States with high taxes on cigarettes have seen a decrease in smoking in general and among youth in particular. Yet since 2007, when e-cigarettes first came on the market, states have varied in classifying and restricting the devices.
At least nine states and eight municipalities have taxes on e-cigarettes and vaping products, ranging from levying $0.05 per milliliter of vaping liquid to taxing 95 percent of the wholesale price, which can add up to $4 dollars on vaping products.
This month, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert supported adding an e-cigarette tax in the next budget with the explicit intent of curbing youth vaping numbers.
“Use of electronic cigarettes by youth has grown at an alarming rate,” the budget report states, adding that youth vaping has increased to more than 11 percent over the past three years while remaining at less than 5 percent among adults.
“The Governor recommends treating electronic cigarette liquid, devices, and paraphernalia the same as traditional tobacco products under Utah’s tax code,” the budget report states.
In November, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper signed an executive order directing agencies to evaluate taxing e-cigarette products to curb youth use.
“Price increases are a proven tool for protecting youth use, but Colorado currently ranks 39th among states in cigarette taxes and does not extend any excise taxes to vaping products,” Mr. Hickenlooper wrote in the order.
There is little research on how increasing prices on e-cigarette devices affect youth vaping trends. An analysis by the Colorado Health Institute found one study that showed an increase in price was associated with lower rates of use by teens across the U.S.
But the analysis also pointed out that in Minnesota, the first state to tax e-cigarettes, at 95 percent of wholesale, saw an increase of 49 percent in youth use of vaping products between 2014 and 2017. The Colorado researchers suggested the increase occurred because of teens turning to online purchases.
“There is an opportunity to evaluate whether taxes are an effective regulation tool when it comes to e-cigarettes,” the researchers wrote.
This month, Surgeon General Jerome Adams called teen vaping an “epidemic” and called for raising awareness about the harms of nicotine and implementing state and local policies to curb e-cigarette use among adolescents.
While Dr. Adams included “implementing price policies” in his advisory, he stopped short of explicitly calling for taxing e-cigarette products in his public remarks, instead referring to “evidence-based strategies” to prevent tobacco use.
Advocates for the vaping industry argue that increasing taxes on e-cigarettes and its products will decrease the number of people who purchase the items and will be a disincentive for cigarette smokers to switch to vaping products.
“Crusades by state legislators to tax vaping products largely aren’t happening because of concerns about youth,” said Gregory Conley, president of the American Vaping Association, in an email to The Washington Times. “To the contrary, revenue-hungry lawmakers are horrified by the fact that every adult smoker who quits represents a decline in cigarette tax revenue.”
But youth anti-smoking advocates say the move is in line with other policies aimed at reducing tobacco use.
“Increasing taxes is a very good idea especially in the prevention of youth use,” said Bonnie Halpern-Felsher, professor of pediatrics at Stanford University and a leading researcher on health policy for reducing cigarette smoking among youth, in an email to The Times.
“Youth are far more price sensitive than adults. Some forms of electronic cigarettes are less expensive so increasing their prices should ultimately help. Taxes aren’t the only solution but definitely one important and effective change. We certainly saw reductions in cigarette use when taxes increased,” Ms. Halpern-Felsher wrote. “Hopefully the tax money goes to prevention, education and research and not into government general funds.”