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ROB PORT: Don't treat vaping like tobacco

Rob Port

MINOT—"(T)he measure will treat the liquid nicotine drug (smoked via electronic cigarettes) and those who sell it exactly the same as all other tobacco products."

That's what Dr. Eric Johnson of Grand Forks wrote in a recent letter to the editor.

Johnson is the chairman of a ballot measure committee that seeks to raise North Dakota's per-pack tax on cigarettes by nearly 400 percent. The tax on other tobacco products would go up by 100 percent.

But more than that, the measure also would lump vaping products into the latter category, subjecting them to a tax they currently aren't burdened by. According to the tax commissioner's office, vaping products currently are subject only to the sales tax.

The justification for the tax hike is price prohibition. The more expensive these activists can make tobacco, the less likely we will be to use it, the thinking goes.

But there doesn't seem to be a strong tie between tax rates and smoking. For instance, North Dakota has the fourth-lowest cigarette tax among the states, but only the 15th highest rate of smoking according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Missouri, which has the lowest tax in the nation by far, comes in at 14th for smoking. Virginia, with the second lowest tax, has the 21st highest rate of cigarette use; and Georgia, with the third lowest tax, ranks 30th.

Even so, I suspect that if this ballot measure were about only raising taxes on cigarettes and other tobacco products, it would be a near lock to pass. Smokers are a small minority of the population. Few in the public are going to be outraged by a tax hike—even one as draconian as this—if it's on a group of people as unsympathetic as smokers.

But I wonder if the tax assault on vaping—something this committee didn't exactly tout when they first announced their measure to the public—might make this measure campaign more controversial than it would have been otherwise.

I think most in the public view vaping as a safer alternative to smoking—a practice that actually can help smokers lead healthier lives.

Even Johnson, if we cut through some of the nannyish bluster, admits that vaping could potentially be a useful tool to help people stop traditional tobacco use.

"If they had data, I would recommend them just like any other stop-smoking product," Johnson told reporter John Hageman. "Since we don't really know whether these help or promote use, it's very difficult as a health care provider to recommend them at this time."

That statement might make one wonder why Johnson and his fellow anti-tobacco activists are in such a hurry to lump vaping in with tobacco under the law, subjecting it to the same sort of prohibitive taxation.

Mind you, I am not arguing that vaping is "healthy." But so far, all evidence seems to suggest that it is at least a healthier alternative to smoking.

Shouldn't we consider that a win? A potential net gain for public health?

What worries me is that these anti-tobacco zealots, in their campaign to inhibit tobacco use (or even just things that look similar to tobacco use), actually are going to hold back progress toward healthier habits.

Legislation similar to this ballot measure has been introduced to lawmakers in Bismarck in the past and defeated, soundly. No doubt the activists pushing the measure would argue that this is because the lawmakers are in the pockets of "Big Tobacco" or something similar, but maybe the lawmakers have a point.

Perhaps price prohibition isn't the best way to address smoking. And maybe vaping shouldn't be treated as though it were tobacco use.

Port, founder of sayanythingblog.com, a North Dakota political blog, is a Forum Communications commentator.

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