Proposals looking to combat nicotine addiction by limiting access to e-cigarettes are misguided

On January 26, Governor Walz unveiled the “Minnesota COVID-19 Recovery Budget” which among other things, aims to hike taxes on cigarettes and as well as vapor products. This as he put it, is to effectively reduce smoking, especially among youth. In the same spirit, the Minnesota House just recently passed a bill to increase taxes, cigars, and tobacco products. Additionally, one bill is in consideration to fully ban flavored tobacco products.

There are a couple of unintended consequences that seem to follow such policies as above. For, one as I have written before, tax hikes on cigarettes encourage smuggling and send Minnesotans to neighboring states. In the same way, banning flavored tobacco cigarettes also benefits our neighboring states. And more importantly, as John Phelan points out, tax hikes are not as effective at reducing smoking.

Leaving aside lack of effectiveness or the myriad of unintended consequences, it seems especially counter-productive that proposals aiming to reduce smoking are so heavily focused on denying smokers access to e-cigarettes. E-cigarettes have been recognized as a useful tool in smoking cessation. Take a look, for instance, at 2014, a study that analyzed cigarette cessation.

Among smokers who have attempted to stop without professional support, those who use e‐cigarettes are more likely to report continued abstinence than those who used a licensed NRT product bought over‐the‐counter or no aid to cessation. This difference persists after adjusting for a range of smoker characteristics such as nicotine dependence.

A lot of evidence exists showing that e-cigarettes are very successful at helping smokers quit. Not only that, but e-cigarettes, as research shows, are less harmful than traditional cigarettes. Due to the lack of combustion, e-cigarettes present extremely fewer carcinogens and toxins relative to what smokers get from traditional cigarettes. In fact, studies have documented that e-cigarettes could 95% less harmful than traditional cigarettes.

Given this evidence, the idea to combat smoking by raising taxes on both cigarettes as well as vaping products or banning flavored cigarettes is misguided and may present even more harm.

In fact, a 2017 CDC study found that increased e-cigarette use between 2011 and 2017 was associated with the declining use of traditional cigarettes among young people. Actually banning e-cigarettes is associated with increased cigarette smoking. As explained by a Wall Street Journal article, e-cigarettes can be a useful weapon to battling smoking.

Electronic cigarettes might even be a deterrent to tobacco addiction. Their use by high-school youth tripled between 2011 and 2013, rising from 1.5% to 4.5%, according to CDC data, and then, according to a University of Michigan study, skyrocketed in 2014, when 16% of 10th-graders and 17% of 12th-graders reported using them. That study reports a decline in youth smoking to a historically low level in these years, with smoking among 10th-graders dropping to 7.2% from 11.8% and among 12th-graders falling to 13.6% from 18.7%.

It is quite possible that legislators proposing to ban flavored tobacco products or hike taxes on cigarettes and vapor products have good intentions. However, results matter more than intentions. And policies that aim to limit access to e-cigarettes in the name of battling nicotine addiction may actually push people into using even more harmful tobacco products.