Taxing tobacco

Smokers pay for their habit in more ways than one. There’s the toll smoking takes on their health and then there’s the toll it takes on their wallets.

Starting Jan. 2, electronic cigarette users in Maine will be feeling the pain when the excise tax on non-cigarette tobacco products, including vaping devices and liquids, will more than double — from 20 to 43 percent of the wholesale price. The increase brings the tax on vaping products, pipe tobacco and cigars inline with that on cigarettes. Proponents say the legislation closes a loophole; opponents say it’s a tax increase — something Governor Mills vowed to avoid her first two years in office. She signed the bill into law earlier this summer.

We’ll call it a draw. Yes, it’s a tax increase, but it’s reasonable to tax all tobacco products at the same rate.

Much of the revenue generated will be allocated for tobacco-use prevention and cessation programs. Coupling sticker shock with education is a smart strategy. Lawmakers in favor of the legislation see it as a way to help curb an increase in youth vaping. But it begs the question: Can you tax people into good behavior? If you can, should you?

The World Health Organization cites increased taxes and prices as “the most cost-effective measure to reduce tobacco use.” The organization says higher prices encourage users to quit and discourage potential users from starting. It remains to be seen whether the tax increase will have this effect in Maine.

Smoking drives up health care costs and decreases worker productivity. The physical toll can diminish a person’s quality of life and sometimes end it. Some would argue vaping is the lesser evil when compared with traditional cigarettes and can be a tool for smokers to wean themselves off their daily pack. But both are means of delivering addictive nicotine to the body.

When it comes to teen users, e-cigarettes are the opposite of a cessation tool; they’re a gateway. U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams has described youth vaping as an “epidemic.” Since 2014, e-cigarettes have been the most commonly used tobacco product among American youth. The 2017 Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey of 1,919 Hancock County high school students showed that 31 percent of students had tried a vape product at some point. Last fall, the head of school at George Stevens Academy in Blue Hill estimated up to 25 percent of GSA students were involved with vaping. Mainers can’t legally buy tobacco products until they’re 21, but teens still get their hands on it. Many electronic smoking products are designed to be trendy and discreet.

The surgeon general warns that nicotine exposure during adolescence can harm the developing brain and may affect learning, memory and attention. It also sets kids up for a lifetime of substance dependence. Taxing vaping products in the same way we do regular cigarettes, increasing education on the associated dangers and scrutinizing how and to whom manufacturers market their product are important tools in decreasing teen vaping use.

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