Letter sent to the House Finance Committe of the State of Rhode Island General Assembly
Dear House Finance Committee Member,
I’m writing to share my concerns about the proposed 80% tax on e-cigarettes that your committee will consider on Wednesday, March 21st.
This new tax would harm Rhode Island consumers (especially the most vulnerable), local businesses, and provide no countervailing benefit to the broader public or to the treasury.
This attempt to create additional tax revenue does not justify the negative ramifications it will have for your constituents. Ay excise tax on lower-risk alternatives to combustible cigarettes would make it harder for your constituents to quit smoking. But this 80% tax proposal is particularly unwise as it would guarantee an expansion of the black market, encourage consumers to purchase e-cigarettes out of state, while harming responsible businesses in your community.
When evaluating this issue, it is important to understand first whether e-cigarettes are indeed helping adult smokers quit, as well as the impact of e-cigarettes on youth, who we all agree should not use any nicotine products, including e-cigarettes.
I wanted to share some recent developments that add to the substantial evidence that suggests that e-cigarettes should be regulated, but with caution, given their potential to help adult smokers quit.
Last month, the American Cancer Society, which had been a strident opponent of e-cigarettes, announced an important change in course. Without dismissing concerns about youth, ACS now recommends “that clinicians support all attempts to quit the use of combustible tobacco and work with smokers to eventually stop using any tobacco product, including e-cigarettes. Some smokers, despite firm clinician advice, will not attempt to quit smoking cigarettes and will not use FDA approved cessation medications. These individuals should be encouraged to switch to the least harmful form of tobacco product possible; switching to the exclusive use of e-cigarettes is preferable to continuing to smoke combustible products.”
Additionally, although there are certainly differences between the populations in Rhode Island and the U.K., last month’s Public Health England’s updated comprehensive review is instructive. In describing the analysis, their tobacco control program lead wrote, “Our report found no evidence so far to support the concern that e-cigarettes are a route into smoking among young people. UK surveys show that young people are experimenting with e-cigarettes, but regular use is rare and confined almost entirely to those who already smoke. Meanwhile, smoking rates among young people in the UK continue to decline.
He added that, “There is currently no evidence to suggest that e-cigarettes are encouraging people to continue smoking – the picture in the UK suggests the opposite. The proportion of e-cigarette users who are ex-smokers has been increasing over recent years. Of the 2.9 million adult e-cigarette users in the UK, more than half have completely stopped smoking. A further 770,000 have given up both smoking and vaping. At the same time, quit success rates have been improving and we’re seeing an accelerated drop in smoking rates, currently at a record low of 15.5% in England.
Public Health England also pointed out that policies should “make a clear distinction between vaping and smoking,” because “E-cigarette use does not meet the legal or clinical definitions of smoking. Furthermore, international peer-reviewed evidence suggests that e-cigarettes carry a fraction of the risk of cigarettes and have the potential to help drive down smoking rates, denormalize smoking and improve public health. So policies need to be clear on the differences between vaping and smoking.”
Similarly, New York University’s Professor David Abrams and colleagues have written that “Each tobacco control strategy (e.g., taxes, media campaigns, treatment availability, accurate consumer knowledge of relative harms, regulations) will influence the flows from one state to another,” or, simply stated, policies such as the smoke-free air act will affect the likelihood that smokers will be able to quit smoking completely by switching to far-less harmful vapor products.
By imposing a 80% tax on vapor products which are used by adult smokers to quit smoking, we reduce the chance that people will quit smoking. The tax will be a disincentive for these people to make the switch, and will not prevent minors from continuing to obtain e-cigarettes through illicit or out of state purchases.
I have faith that the public health community, legislators, and responsible local businesses can work together to prevent youth use of e-cigarettes without unnecessarily harming adult smokers and Rhode Island businesses, so many of whom are diligent in not allowing minors to even enter their premises. It is evident that youth who use e-cigarettes attain them from illicit businesses and other sources. This tax would do nothing to address that problem.
Jeff Stier Senior Fellow, Consumer Choice Center