Not all cigarettes are equal under federal law. Electronic cigarettes are exempt from federal tobacco taxes.
That makes sense, because they don’t burn tobacco. But if electronic cigarettes contain highly addictive nicotine and other chemicals, doesn’t it make sense to look at how the federal government should tax them?
Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden thinks so, and we agree.
He proposes to introduce legislation to put a federal sales tax on electronic cigarettes.
Wyden said his tax proposal was prompted by a recent multi-state outbreak of severe lung disease, including the death of a middle-aged Oregon user of vaping products. That person’s symptoms were consistent with those of more than 200 other cases in at least 25 states, the Associated Press reported.
The Oregon Democrat said he expects that taxing e-cigarettes will help limit their use among teenagers and will challenge vaping industry executives and lobbyists, who likely will put up a fight.
“I think that can be a part of any responsible solution,’’ he said.
Of course, it’s an issue with complications. It’s even hard to get information about what’s in electronic cigarettes. Nicotine? Almost certainly. What else? There’s likely a lot of variability by brand.
There also can be important advantages to electronic cigarettes. They can help people quit smoking, as a study in the New England Journal of Medicine indicated. At the same time, though, some smokers keep using electronic cigarettes instead of quitting nicotine altogether.
Taxation as a way of changing behavior can get tricky, as well. Higher prices can discourage teens and adults from using electronic cigarettes. There can be another perverse effect. People don’t always do what’s “best” for themselves when they don’t suffer from an addiction — let alone when they do. For people who are addicted to nicotine, higher taxes will increase the amount of money they feel compelled to spend on their addiction.
But even with all those considerations and qualifications, Wyden is right to push for a debate on taxes on electronic cigarettes. Electronic cigarettes do create a cost to society and the taxes should, at least, be used to promote education about their use and related health care programs.