As anti-smoking groups' opposition to legislation that would have banned the sale of electronic cigarettes to minors in Rhode Island and Ohio has unfolded, it has become clear that their main concern is not protecting the health of children, but making sure that electronic cigarettes will be taxed at the same rate as cigarettes.
Within two days, Rhode Island's governor and anti-smoking advocates in Ohio have admitted that their primary concern is not protecting the health of children, but protecting cigarette sales from competition from much healthier e-cigs, which presently enjoy the advantage of avoiding tobacco excise taxes.
The real issue for these anti-smoking groups is apparently the desire to make sure that e-cigarettes do not enjoy any competitive advantage over tobacco cigarettes. They especially want to make sure that theses products are taxed at comparable rates.
Here's what Governor Chafee had to say in his message vetoing legislation that would have banned the sale of e-cigs to minors: "The sale of electronic cigarettes to children should be prohibited,
but it is counter-productive to prohibit sales to children while
simultaneously exempting electronic cigarettes from laws concerning
regulation, enforcement, licensing or taxation. As a matter of public policy, electronic cigarette laws should mirror tobacco product laws, not circumvent them."
Almost simultaneously, an anti-smoking advocacy group in Ohio (the American Cancer Society) admitted their the main reason for their opposition to a proposed ban on the sale of e-cigarettes to minors is that they want these products taxed similarly to cigarettes.
According to an article in the Columbus Dispatch: "Anti-smoking advocates say that below the surface of House Bill 144 is a
tobacco-industry-crafted “Trojan horse” designed to ensure that the emerging electronic-cigarette
market and other alternative nicotine products remain taxed at a lower rate than traditional
cigarettes and stay outside the state’s indoor smoking ban."
The Rest of the Story
So what is the problem with these bills, in the eyes of the anti-smoking groups? The problem is that in banning the sale of e-cigarettes to minors, these bills define e-cigarettes as vaping products rather than tobacco products. This disturbs the anti-smoking groups because they want e-cigarettes to be defined as tobacco products so that they are taxed at the same rate and treated the same way. The bottom line: they don't want e-cigarettes to have a competitive marketing advantage.
This is completely ironic because what the anti-smoking groups are doing is protecting cigarette sales from potential competition. The irony is that the tobacco companies are the ones who are pushing for this legislation.
So the rest of the story is that we have an irony of epic proportions: the tobacco companies are lobbying to sacrifice cigarette sales at the expense of the much safer electronic cigarettes, while the anti-smoking groups are lobbying to protect cigarette sales by making sure that it is not too easy for smokers to quit smoking and switch to electronic cigarettes. These groups want to remove the competitive economic advantage that e-cigs currently have and institute economic reforms that would stimulate cigarette sales at the expense of a competitive product designed to get smokers off of cigarettes.
This has to be one of the most perverse episodes in tobacco control that I have ever witnessed.
The most telling part of the story is that defining e-cigarettes as tobacco products is not necessary to tax them. The legislature could simply impose a tax on electronic cigarettes.And the anti-smoking advocates understand this!
From the Columbus Dispatch article: "a recent legal opinion from the non-partisan Legislative Service Commission ...
argues that the bill does not change the current tax status of e-cigarettes, and that nothing would
stop advocates from pushing for a higher tax rate in the future. Cathy Callaway, associate director of state and local campaigns for the American Cancer Society’s
Cancer Action Network, agrees, but she said the bill sets the stage for treating e-cigarettes
differently from other tobacco products."
Aha. So the legislation is not a Trojan horse after all. It is a legitimate ban on the sale of e-cigs to minors. The problem is that anti-smoking advocates are worried that by defining e-cigs as a different product from cigarettes, it will set the stage for regulating them differently. That's what this really comes down to.
And you know what? It would be ludicrous, from a public health standpoint, to regulate e-cigs the same was as the real deadly ones. They must be regulated differently, and in a way that encourages smokers to quit smoking, rather than to continue smoking.
Ironically, the anti-groups are committed to preserving the competitive advantage that tobacco cigarettes enjoy and making sure they do not face competition from what otherwise would be a much cheaper (and much healthier) alternative. And at the same time, the cigarette companies are actually willing to see e-cigs be given a competitive advantage in the marketplace.
Sadly, I truly believe that cigarette companies sincerely want to create a market niche for electronic cigarettes as an alternative to smoking, while anti-smoking groups want to maintain the market in the direction of the real, irredeemably toxic tobacco cigarettes.
This is a story that is going to be very difficult and challenging to teach to my public health students this fall. I guarantee that they are not going to understand or believe this, and that it is going to shake their idealism about public health.