Please see the update at the bottom of this post.
Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo’s state budget plan would change the definition of “other tobacco products” to include e-cigarettes and would impose a new 80 percent wholesale tax on these products.
This week the state’s House Finance Committee will take testimony and consider the governor’s proposal.
Nearly everything about Gov. Raimondo’s approach to this issue runs counter to the goals of improving public health and reducing smoking. When Rhode Island governors have proposed similar taxes in the past, the legislature has wisely rejected them — and they should reject this ill-conceived tax.
For starters, e-cigarettes and vapor products don’t contain any tobacco. They don’t have the tar or smoke of traditional cigarettes either. E-cigarette users inhale vapor from flavored liquids. Yes, most of those e-liquids contain nicotine. It’s the same nicotine you’d find in nicotine gum or a nicotine patch, which doctors view as replacements to tobacco and use to help patients quit smoking.
Millions of Americans use these products and nearly all of them are smokers or former smokers, who use the products in an effort to quit or reduce their smoking. Last year the Royal College of Physicians, which surveyed all the available scientific literature, found “e-cigarettes are much safer than smoking” and the “hazard to health arising from long-term vapor inhalation from the e-cigarettes available today is unlikely to exceed 5 percent of the harm from smoking tobacco.”
That would make e-cigarettes 95 percent safer than cigarettes. And it’s not difficult to understand why. Put simply, it’s not nicotine that causes smokers to get sick and die. No, it’s lighting tobacco on fire and breathing in the toxic and carcinogenic products of combustion that kills some smokers.
Rhode Island should do what public health officials in Great Britain do — encourage smokers who won’t or can’t quit cigarettes to switch to e-cigarettes.
In addition to harming public health in Rhode Island, the tax would also be harmful to the businesses that are providing a safer alternative to smoking.
Pennsylvania recently included a 40 percent vapor tax in its state budget and over 160 small businesses have closed their doors because of the tax. Because of the significant and immediate unintended consequences of the tax, Pennsylvania legislators are already trying to reverse their actions just months after the tax took effect.
The situation is even more dire in Rhode Island, where the tax would be twice the size of the great Pennsylvania mistake. With Connecticut and Massachusetts just a short drive away, this tax would encourage consumers to flock out of state or online to purchase e-cigarette products. As a result, Rhode Island will see lost revenues from income taxes and sales taxes, as those sales go to businesses in Massachusetts and Connecticut.
One of the most common arguments trying to justify the e-cigarette tax is that taxes are needed prevent teens from taking up smoking. But federal data reveals that as vapor products have grown in popularity in recent years, teen smoking rates have taken a nosedive. It’s no coincidence that in state after state, teen smoking rates are lower than any time in recorded history.
Instead of fighting a misguided war on e-cigarettes, Rhode Island leaders should focus on fighting lung cancer and other smoking-related diseases. The Royal College of Physicians found that getting smokers to switch to e-cigarettes could “prevent death and disability from tobacco use, and to hasten our progress to a tobacco-free society.”
In this battle, e-cigarettes aren’t the problem – e-cigarettes can help us win.
[Rhode Island Update April 5, 2017]
On March 22, 2017 (after the publication of this post) the Rhode Island House Finance Committee held a public hearing to discuss provisions of Gov. Gina Raimondo’s budget, including the concerns expressed here about language related to the other tobacco products (OTP) tax. Language in the proposed budget included references to “any tobacco substitutes” and “an apparatus made of any material designed to burn or vaporize products” that arguably opened the door to applying the OTP tax to e-cigarettes and vapor products, as referenced in my commentary above.
Representatives from the Rhode Island Department of Revenue, with whom I have spoken, attended the hearing and gave a clear presentation including specific reference (verbally and in the visual presentation) indicating that it was not Gov. Raimondo’s intent to extend the OTP tax vapor products in this budget and the language in question was not an effort to do so. When officials indicated such at the legislative hearing, Rhode Island vapor business owners and other vapor advocates (who had been calling, emailing and meeting with legislators on this issue for weeks) cheered and chose not to testify further regarding the proposed budget language at the hearing. This has been confirmed by the Department of Revenue and representatives of organizations opposing vapor taxes that were in attendance at the time.
Gov. Raimondo made the correct decision and it’s important to clearly indicate such here in this post.
Additionally, I respectfully suggest that the governor, the Department of Revenue and legislative leaders in Rhode Island consider including language specifically exempting e-cigarettes and vapor products from provisions in the OTP tax here, as future politicians and state leaders may not interpret the statutory language referencing “tobacco substitutes” and devices that “vaporize” in the same, enlightened manner as Gov. Raimondo.
I’d like to thank Gov. Raimondo and the Department of Revenue for providing us with additional information.