In January, Alaska became the latest state in the Union to propose a tax on vape products when it introduced SB 45. The bill, and its counterpart HB 110, would make several changes to state tobacco policy by levying a 45% wholesale tax on electronic vape products. This new tax would not only make nicotine vapor product taxes more expensive for consumers, but also comparable to that of traditional combustion cigarettes, which are far more harmful. Even more alarming, when factoring in the city of Anchorage’s 2020 55% e-cigarette tax, some vape products would actually cost more than cigarettes, a truly disappointing prospect.
Alaska’s SB 45 should be concerning to anyone who supports fairness in the consumer market and recognizes the value of risk mitigation strategies in helping curtail negative health outcomes. Rather than pass a new onerous tax on consumers, Alaska should instead support harm reduction policies that take into account the complex nature of the issue and seek to understand certain nuances, such as the potential role for vape products in smoking cessation treatments. It should be noted that SB 45 does make exemptions for some tobacco cessation devices, but these must first be approved by the FDA, which has previously demonstrated reluctance towards approving new vape products.
While the dangers of tobacco use are well documented, it is simply not accurate, nor helpful, to treat all tobacco products as the same. Some products like traditional cigarettes and cigars utilize combustion to work. They therefore result in the user inhaling a more dangerous combination of tar and carcinogens, which have been shown to increase the risk of cancer.
However, other products like e-cigarettes and vape pens utilize e-liquid heating which tends to reduce the types of negative respiratory issues, such as shortness of breath, that are common in traditional tobacco products. Still other products like snus do not involve inhalation at all and, while still dangerous, tend to contain lower levels of nitrosamines and other carcinogens. The point is, tobacco products come in many different shapes and sizes and, as a consequence, carry different levels of risk. Elected officials should consider these risks when crafting legislation.
It is also not practical to treat all tobacco products the same. We live in an imperfect world where regardless of our personal feelings towards tobacco, there will always be those who choose to use it. Therefore, rather than attempting to control human behavior through uniformly punitive taxes, and a futile promotion of abstinence, lawmakers should take into consideration product differences and design legislation that is risk proportionate.
While it would be preferable that no tax be imposed on vape products at all, the next best thing would be to tax vape products at a lower rate than traditional tobacco products. This would avoid the risk of unintentionally pushing vape users to switch to more dangerous traditional tobacco products, and also reduce the tax burden on lower income Americans who are more likely to use vape products.
Any revenue generated from the tax could then be used to combat the negative effects of tobacco use on public health, such as funding tobacco cessation treatment programs. Unfortunately, most of the $60 million currently raised from Alaskan tobacco taxes go the state’s general fund, something unrelated to offsetting these negative effects. There is no reason to think the revenue generated from SB 45 would be used for anything different.
Fortunately, there is still time for Alaska’s elected leaders to reconsider SB 45. While the bill has already passed the Senate, it has not yet been voted on House. Legislators should do the right thing and vote down this regressive piece of legislation. Doing so will help protect consumer access to less harmful alternatives than traditional tobacco products and provide lawmakers with another opportunity to propose legislation that focuses more on harm reduction and less on raising taxes.