Vaping among high school students has risen 135% in just two years, and the government deserves more than a little blame. The Food and Drug Administration has dragged its feet on regulation, and lawmakers have resisted reforms to make e-cigarettes less appealing to children. Government inaction has jeopardized one of America’s greatest public-health achievements of recent years: the drastic decline in teen smoking.
The House of Representatives can help to put this right. It’s about to consider a new tax on e-cigarettes — a policy that’s long overdue.
E-cigarettes aren’t safe. It took a mysterious outbreak linked to 37 deaths to grab the country’s attention, but the dangers of vaping high levels of nicotine were already well-known. It’s addictive, it strains the cardiovascular system, and it’s especially dangerous to young people. In other words, we should be doing everything we can to discourage young people from using these products, just as we discourage them from smoking cigarettes.
Which makes it shocking that vaping products aren’t taxed by the federal government. The World Health Organization has called tobacco taxes “the most cost-effective solution for reducing tobacco use”: On average, every 10% increase in tobacco prices cuts consumption by 4% (and by as much as 7% among teenagers, who are more sensitive to prices). The nationwide decline in smoking has a lot to do with taxation: As the federal cigarette tax rose sixfold between 1990 and 2014, per-capita use fell by more than half.
The Protecting American Lungs Act cleared an important committee last month and will face a full House vote. It would tax vape products at the same rate as cigarettes — adding $1.15 to the price of a Juul pod, a 20% increase over the manufacturer’s retail price. That’s a lower tax than most public-health experts would recommend, but high enough to make a dent in teen smoking rates.
The proposal has bipartisan backing. Some Republicans worry that tackling e-cigarettes is a political loser, but recent polling and Republican-led proposals in Arkansas and Kentucky suggest their fears are misplaced. Other states and cities have passed bills raising the tax on tobacco products with bipartisan support. The truth is that well-designed tobacco taxes aren’t a partisan concern: They’re a public-health necessity, supported by abundant research.
Finally, Washington seems to be taking the threat seriously. It’s about time.