The political economy of vaping

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Dan Mitchell is the co-founder of the Center for Freedom and Prosperity.

In an ideal world, the discussion and debate about how (or if) to tax e-cigarettes, heat-not-burn, and other tobacco harm-reduction products would be guided by science. Policy makers would confer with experts, analyze evidence, and craft prudent and sensible laws and regulations.

In the real world, however, politicians are guided by other factors.

There are two things to understand, both of which are based on my conversations with policy staff in Washington and elsewhere.

First, this is a battle over tax revenue. Politicians are concerned that they will lose tax revenue if a substantial number of smokers switch to options such as vaping.

This is very much akin to the concern that electric cars and fuel-efficient cars will lead to a loss of money from excise taxes on gasoline.

In the case of fuel taxes, politicians are anxiously looking at other sources of revenue, such as miles-driven levies. Their main goal is to maintain – or preferably increase – the amount of money that is diverted to the redistributive state so that politicians can reward various interest groups.

In the case of tobacco, a reduction in the number of smokers (or the tax-driven propensity of smokers to seek out black-market cigarettes) is leading politicians to concoct new schemes for taxing e-cigarettes and related non-combustible products.

Second, this is a quasi-ideological fight. Not about capitalism versus socialism, or big government versus small government. It’s basically a fight over paternalism, or a battle over goals.

For all intents and purposes, the question is whether lawmakers should seek to simultaneously discourage both tobacco use and vaping because both carry some risk (and perhaps because both are considered vices for the lower classes)? Or should they welcome vaping since it leads to harm reduction as smokers shift to a dramatically safer way of consuming nicotine?

In statistics, researchers presumably always recognize the dangers of certain types of mistakes, known as Type I errors (also known as a “false positive”) and Type II errors (also known as a “false negative”).

How does this relate to smoking, vaping, and taxes?

Simply stated, both sides of the fight are focused on a key goal and secondary issues are pushed aside. In other words, tradeoffs are being ignored.

The advocates of high taxes on e-cigarettes and other non-combustible products are fixated on the possibility that vaping will entice some people into the market. Maybe vaping wil even act as a gateway to smoking. So, they want high taxes on vaping, akin to high taxes on tobacco, even though the net result is that this leads many smokers to stick with cigarettes instead of making a switch to less harmful products.

On the other side of the debate are those focused on overall public health. They see emerging non-combustible products as very effective ways of promoting harm reduction. Is it possible that e-cigarettes may be tempting to some people who otherwise would never try tobacco? Yes, that’s possible, but it’s easily offset by the very large benefits that accrue as smokers become vapers.

For all intents and purposes, the fight over the taxation of vaping is similar to other ideological fights.

The old joke in Washington is that a conservative is someone who will jail 99 innocent people in order to put one crook in prison and a liberal is someone who will free 99 guilty people to prevent one innocent person from being convicted (or, if you prefer, a conservative will deny 99 poor people to catch one welfare fraudster and a liberal will line the pockets of 99 fraudsters to make sure one genuinely poor person gets money).

The vaping fight hasn’t quite reached this stage, but the battle lines are very familiar. At some point in the future, observers may joke that one side is willing to accept more smoking if one teenager forgoes vaping while the other side is willing to have lots of vapers if it means one less smoker.

Having explained the real drivers of this debate, I’ll close by injecting my two cents and explaining why the paternalists are wrong. But rather than focus on libertarian-type arguments about personal liberty, I’ll rely on three points, all of which are based on conventional cost-benefit analysis and the sensible approach to excise taxation.

  • First, tax policy should focus on incentivizing a switch and not punishing those who chose a less harmful products. The goal should be harm reduction rather than revenue maximization.
  • Second, low tax burdens also translate into lower long-run spending burdens because a shift to vaping means a reduction in overall healthcare costs related to smoking cigarettes.
  • Third, it makes no sense to impose punitive “sin taxes” on behaviors that are much less, well, sinful. There’s a big difference in the health and fiscal impact of cigarettes compared to the alternatives.

One final point is that this issue has a reverse-class-warfare component. Anti-smoking activists generally have succeeded in stigmatizing cigarette consumption and most smokers are now disproportionately from the lower-income community. For better (harm reduction) or worse (elitism), low-income smokers are generally treated with disdain for their lifestyle choices.  

It is not an explicit policy, but that disdain now seems to extend to any form of nicotine consumption, even though the health effects of vaping are vastly lower.