Commentary: Adding vaping regulations will empower the black market
New York has long had a massive tobacco piracy problem. We’ve all read headlines like “NY’s futile fight against illegal cigarettes” and “New York ranks No. 1 in cigarette smuggling.”
Now, it appears some lawmakers want to extend the problem to e-cigarettes, too. The Legislature is considering bills to regulate e-cigarettes like conventional “cancer sticks,” tax e-cigarette cartridges as tobacco products, ban e-cigarette flavors, and institute a per-fluid-milliliter tax.
While this is ostensibly about stopping teenage vaping (unlikely to work, since teenagers are great at skirting laws to engage in behavior their elders disapprove of), the black market risk is real. But there’s also a high probability that if these bills pass, more adult smokers will keep on puffing, instead of switching to less-harmful vapor products or even stopping. I say this as a former smoker who only managed to quit via vaping — and who no longer vapes, either.
I’m not the only one of us out there, but if some legislators have their way, there will be fewer of me and more Americans to add to the 16 million who already live with disease or illness caused by smoking, including cancer, heart disease, stroke, lung disease, diabetes, and COPD. Approximately 480,000 of them die each year. Vapor companies do not market their products as harm-reducing or smoking cessation tools for legal and regulatory reasons, but my personal experience tells me they can be exactly that for a great many smokers. Why would we want to limit access to products with this potential if even 1 percent of smokers could have the same experience?
The United Kingdom has a different approach — and attitude. Public Health England declared the use of e-cigarettes to be “around 95 percent safer than smoking” in 2015. The UK’s Royal College of Physicians likewise found that electronic cigarette use is “unlikely to exceed 5 percent of the harm from smoking tobacco,” and that “e-cigarettes appear to be effective when used by smokers as an aid to quitting smoking.”
British physicians even went so far as to conclude that “in the interests of public health it is important to promote the use of e-cigarettes” along with other non-tobacco nicotine products “as possible as a substitute for smoking.” And as a good number of vapers will personally tell you, a wide array of flavorings — and not just the tobacco-replicating ones — being available is key. A broad and vibrant marketplace matters here, even if “cool cucumber” vapor sounds gross.
New York’s vapor regulation and taxation debate presents a good opportunity for the state to learn from the UK’s experience, with great potential upside for smokers, their family and friends — and indeed taxpayers, who are increasingly footing the bill for health care for smokers, especially with legally owed taxed not being collected due to black market sales. Let’s hope they get policy right, and don’t try to solve an incredibly complex problem with policy that will make matters worse. Ultimately, lives are on the line. Why risk them, while creating another black market for criminals to exploit as they have with conventional tobacco?