It’s a dark day in Boston. The legislature recently banned all flavored e-cigarettes in the state while also instituting a 75 percent excise tax on the product — the highest in the nation. While the law was passed under the guise of protecting teen health, the only thing it has accomplished is making e-cigarettes more dangerous.
Across the nation, cities and governors have waged war on e-cigarettes. In Michigan, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer placed a temporary ban on flavored e-cigarettes, while in New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo followed suit soon thereafter. Even San Francisco upheld a decision to outlaw all flavored e-cigarettes. Yet nothing compares to Massachusetts, as it became the first state to ban all flavors, even menthol, through the legislature. While the goal of protecting teen health is admirable, the intended effects would do little to limit the access of e-cigarettes.
Indeed, as vaping continues to rise in popularity, it’s very difficult to justify this ban as consumers will find ways to access e-cigarettes regardless of regulations. To better understand why this is so, it’s helpful to look at a similar policy: cigarette taxes.
Taxing cigarettes is seen as a way to reduce smoking on the reasoning that the higher prices will make consumers want to buy fewer cigarettes. Yet, because cigarettes are a popular product, smuggling is a common way to reduce prices by importing them from low-tax states. The Tax Foundation reported that there was a linear positive relation between excise taxes on cigarettes and cigarette smuggling.
Massachusetts, for instance had a $3.51 tax on cigarettes and was the sixth highest state for cigarette smuggling. Indeed, due to the state’s high taxes and the fact that Massachusetts borders five other states, it makes it easy and enticing for a black market to emerge, allowing people to buy smuggled cigarettes. The report concludes that 28.4 percent of all cigarettes consumed in Massachusetts were smuggled.
Is there any expectation that restricting e-cigarettes will be any different?
As consumers prefer certain products, very rarely will restrictions and bans make people stop using a product. It happened with alcohol prohibition, it’s happening with cigarettes and it will happen with e-cigarettes.
But the problem goes beyond simple access to e-cigarettes. As legal vendors are put out of business and as demand for e-cigarettes remains in place, black markets will fill the void. And when the substances found in e-cigarettes aren’t regulated or checked, the likelihood of them containing harmful chemicals substantially increases.
Indeed, after months of wavering, the Center for Disease Control finally announced that illicit counterfeit e-cigarettes, not legal ones, were the genesis of the “health outbreak.” The CDC reported that, “THC was identified in 82% of the samples and nicotine was identified in 62% of the samples.” Despite this revelation, the Massachusetts ban will make it near impossible to tell what’s safe and what isn’t, as black market dealers aren’t worried about selling dangerous products.
As people continue to demand and buy e-cigarettes, the safeguards needed to promote public health have been derailed.
Yet, there is hope as vapers are a politically active group. A recent McLaughlin & Associates survey found that four in five vapers decide their vote based on a politician’s e-cigarette stance, while 50 percent are very likely to be single issue voters. If vapers can mobilize for Massachusetts’ next election and turn out the vote, lawmakers will have no choice but to listen to their constituents and find a solution that isn’t a wholesale ban.
As the nation continues to grapple with people getting ill from illicit e-cigarettes, states are mistaken to believe that e-cigarette bans will solve the problem. Not only are these bans ineffective, but it would be in interest of the public health if they were never pass these bans in the first place.
As underground markets are a perfect place for unregulated e-cigarettes, Massachusetts just unknowingly made e-cigarettes more a lot more dangerous.
Janson Q. Prieb is a policy analyst at the American Consumer Institute.