Phil Power | Tax e-cigarettes to pay for enforcement and treatment

Phil Power

Phil Power is founder and chairman of The Center for Michigan. 

Update: It's official: Flavored e-cigarettes are now illegal in Michigan

Epidemic vaping is turning into a big story in Michigan and nationwide.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer recently ordered a statewide ban on the sale of flavored e-cigarettes ‒ the first state in the nation to do so ‒ after health officials declared that its attraction to minors was a "public health emergency."

President Trump soon followed, announcing his intent to ban the sale of flavored e-cigs nationwide.

The long-term effects of vaping nicotine and THC (the psychoactive chemical in pot), especially on young people, are not completely known or understood. However, federal public health authorities have reported that about 380 people in 36 states and the U.S. Virgin Islands had lung-related illnesses after vaping and that a small number had died, likely from the practice.

Tony Abboud, a spokesman for the Vapor Technology Association, which represents e-cigarette makers, criticized Whitmer's action as a "government edict not based on science or common sense."

Public health authorities have warned that vaping usage has increased enormously, especially among young people. The federal Food and Drug Administration rebuked Juul Labs, the dominant e-cigarette company, for marketing vaping products as a "totally safe" way to quit smoking tobacco.

Indeed, some medical experts have drawn attention to unclear and still-evolving government regulations over the sale and marketing of e-cigarettes. The basic issue is whether the potential benefits of using e-cigarettes to quit smoking tobacco and reduce smoking-related deaths will outweigh the risks of vaping.

According to the New York Times, Juul Labs now has more than 70 percent of the e-cigarette market in the United States; released in 2015, its product led to explosive growth in sales and stock valuation. 

Juul has reportedly sold 35 percent of its stock to Altria, one of the nation's leading tobacco cigarette companies, raising questions about parallels between today’s vaping debate and longstanding arguments surrounding the danger of tobacco produces.

On top of it all remains a highly personal and ambiguous question: If people, knowing the risks of a certain behavior, choose to continue a practice proven to be dangerous, what justifies government prohibiting that practice?

Seat belts represent an example. The evidence is clear that wearing seat belts substantially reduces the chances of serious injury in the event of an automobile accident. Many states enforce a "click it or ticket" rule for drivers. Yet many drivers choose not to buckle up and enforcement is spotty.

Helmets for motorcycle drivers offer another example. Michigan formerly had laws requiring cyclists to wear helmets; following noisy public protests, those laws were repealed. Many doctors now darkly refer to motorcyclists who don’t wear helmets as "mobile organ donors".

In both cases, not buckling up or wearing a helmet do not themselves constitute a particular risk to those who choose to follow safety precautions. 

The old debate over smoking, of course, provokes a counter example.

A big part of the anti-smoking argument was that "secondhand smoke" from others smoking cigarettes constituted a substantial public health risk to non-smokers. To the tobacco industry's shame, this discussion was systematically biased by what turned out to be entirely spurious evidence about the safety of smoking tobacco.

My impression is that vaping ‒ like smoking cigarettes generations ago ‒ is an "in" thing to do among young people. Vaping devices are sophisticated and attractive, not to mention that lots of manufacturers offer products flavored to be attractive to young people.

In a sense, vaping is a lot like drinking. Risky for health if overdone, but widely used and tolerated. This suggests one policy option is to regulate e-cigarettes like alcohol: restrict the age of purchase (which, to its credit, the state did this year, in bipartisan fashion); confine purchase points to specified locations; tax the product to pay for enforcement and treatment of abuse.

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Comments

David
Mon, 09/16/2019 - 10:51am

A reasonable approach. We need to deal with the obvious: some people are convinced that they are going to live too long and feel the need to take steps to see that this doesn't happen.