Tucked within Christie’s budget plan for 2015 is a brand new “sin tax” on the sale of electronic cigarettes, a smoke-free, tobacco-free alternative that many smokers and ex-smokers use to quit smoking. Christie apparently disapproves of this behavior, as he seeks to apply a tax on e-cigarette sales that would supposedly be equivalent to the excise tax paid by smokers who buy real cigarettes.
If Christie and supporters in the Legislature are looking for a catchy nickname for this portion of the budget, they may want to go with the Combustible Cigarette Protection Act of 2014. Such a title would accurately summarize the consequences of this poorly constructed plan.
Practically all e-cigarette users are or once were smokers, and a sudden price hike could send some back to smoking.
Additionally, with the most commonly available e-cigarettes — single-use disposables sold in convenience stores and general stores — already priced similarly to or even more than a pack of cigarettes, enactment of this brand-new tax would serve as a barrier preventing smokers from switching to a far less hazardous alternative.
Contrary to activists’ claims, nicotine at the levels used in e-cigarettes is no more harmful than regular caffeine use. The U.S. Food & Drug Administration has recognized the low-risk nature of smoke-free nicotine use; it recently approved labeling changes to nicotine replacement therapy products to allow for long-term use by smokers looking to quit.
Independent studies of the water-like vapor produced by e-cigarettes have shown the levels of toxicants and chemicals are far lower than in cigarette smoke and comparable to the trace amounts present in traditional nicotine-replacement therapy products such as the nicotine inhaler, patch or gum. Moreover, smokers are increasingly using e-cigarettes in attempting to quit. A randomized clinical trial published last September in the medical journal The Lancet found e-cigarettes helped just as many smokers quit as the nicotine patch did, and e-cigarette users were much more likely to recommend friends use e-cigarettes to try to quit.
So why tax e-cigarettes at a rate that will make them less attractive to smokers?
Supporters of these taxes in other states have argued taxes on e-cigarettes will keep them out of the hands of children. This is a bogus argument because the sale of e-cigarettes to minors has already been banned in New Jersey, as it should be.
According to Assemblyman Dan Benson (D-Mercer), there is another reason to tax e-cigarettes the same as cigarettes: “If e-cigarettes are taxed less than regular cigarettes ,we’re sending a message out there that they’re somehow safer, and I think the jury is out on that,” he told NJ 101.5.
In other words, Benson wants you to believe the vapor produced by an electronic cigarette may be just as hazardous as inhaling the burning smoke from a cigarette. The idea of using taxes as a propaganda tool exemplifies the intellectual heft of those trying to pretend cigarettes and e-cigarettes are the same product.
In reality, with each month that passes, more public health and tobacco-control professionals are realizing the great harm-reduction potential of smoke-free products such as e-cigarettes. The only state that currently applies excise taxes to electronic cigarettes (over and above the sales tax), Minnesota, imposed the tax in 2010 when the product was in its infancy.
Given the potential health benefits of e-cigarettes compared with smoking, it’s no wonder attempts to apply excise taxes have failed in a diverse group of states, including Delaware, Iowa, Maine, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon and Utah.
For the sake of smokers desperately trying to quit, New Jersey legislators should reject this irrational cash grab.
[First published at the Newark Star-Ledger.]