Ken Braun: Taxing e-cigarettes like tobacco would result in more cancer –

Children will likely soon be prohibited from purchasing e-cigarettes, under a couple of bills moving through the Legislature. But while there’s no serious dispute that nicotine is an addictive stimulant unfit for minors, a more controversial discussion is gearing up regarding whether we should tax e-cigarettes as we do “tobacco” products.

E-cigs are not tobacco, and the confusion on this point could kill people.

Gov. Rick Snyder says he wants equal regulations for e-cigarettes. But he is dodging questions about whether Michigan’s high tobacco taxes should also be imposed on a non-tobacco product.

“[I]f it’s a tobacco product, treat it that way,” says Snyder, according to Tim Skubick.

Except, it’s not a tobacco product – it’s just a nicotine product. This is not to say nicotine is good for you, but it’s vastly less dangerous than inhaling the smoke from cancer-causing leaves, and that is what is driving the rapidly growing e-cigarette market. Smokers who switch to “vaping” e-cigarettes make a much healthier choice, dodge the large majority of their old cancer risks, and cause zero second-hand smoke.

Michigan imposes a $2.00 per pack tax on cigarettes, one of the most expensive such levies in the nation. Protecting public health is the stated reason for this rate. Supporters argue tobacco-related cancers and other smoking illnesses drive up healthcare costs, particularly in the state’s hefty Medicaid spending, and that heavy taxes both help recoup the costs and deter people from smoking.

But it bears noting that Michigan’s cigarette tax hikes occurred not when people were smoking more, but over the last dozen years or so as state government was hungry for money. Despite the ‘public health’ rhetoric, was always an open question whether lawmakers cared more for the money or saving lives. Now we may find out as they decide whether and how to tax e-cigarettes.

If conventional tobacco taxes have really been about public health, rather than just more loot for government, then policymakers and anti-smoking lobbyists should be quite loudly declaring e-cigarettes off-limits to the tax man. This anti-tobacco alternative should be the solution they’ve been waiting for. They might even consider a public relations campaign to get smokers to switch.

No such chorus is warming up to sing that tune. Go figure.

If hiking tobacco taxes was meant to deter smoking tobacco, then hitting e-cigarettes with taxes will logically deter “vaping.” But research shows – logically enough – those who take up “vaping” are current and former smokers, not new ones, so the perverse impact of taxing e-cigarettes as tobacco will be to keep more people sticking with the real, cancer-loaded, cigarettes. And because “vaping” is still relatively trendy and in the price range of middle and higher income smokers, the first people left clinging to their ashtrays will be those low-income smokers on Medicaid.

It’s rarely so easy to draw a straight line between death and taxes. Taxing e-cigarettes like real cigarettes will inflict more hideous cancers on more people than would otherwise occur if they switched to vaping, and many of those people will die as a result. Conversely, failure to apply tobacco taxes to e-cigarettes will mean much less revenue for state government.

In the era of e-cigarettes, choosing the money means government is choosing to kill.

Gov. Snyder is right to be reluctant to talk about the tax issue, but he shouldn’t make the mistake of confusing tobacco deaths with tobacco substitutes. After signing the bills to keep nicotine away from kids, he should leave e-cigarettes alone and see how many lives he can save. It’ll be worth the price.

Ken Braun was a legislative aide for a Republican lawmaker in the Michigan House and worked for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. He has assisted in a start-up effort to encourage employers to provide economic education to employees, and is currently the director of policy for His employer is not responsible for what he says here, on Facebook, or Twitter … or in Spartan Stadium on game days.

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