Editorials

Raise the tobacco tax, regulate e-cigs

A proposed tax increase on tobacco products would raise the price of both filtered tobacco cigarettes, far left, and electronic cigarettes.
A proposed tax increase on tobacco products would raise the price of both filtered tobacco cigarettes, far left, and electronic cigarettes. The New York Times

There are lots of good reasons to raise California’s tax on tobacco, not the least of which is that when cigarettes are more expensive, fewer kids smoke.

California’s existing tobacco tax hasn’t been raised since a voter-approved initiative in 1998. California is a high-tax state. But because of the influence of the tobacco industry, our tobacco tax is among America’s lowest, at 87 cents per pack.

That places it 35th among the states, and below the national average of $1.60. According to a new Field Poll, 67 percent of Californians think it’s high time we changed that.

Sen. Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, introduced legislation earlier this week to raise the tobacco tax by $2 per pack, which would place the state’s tobacco tax rate at No. 8. The increase would require a two-thirds vote to pass, which means bipartisan support will be needed. But two other good reasons for passing it are that it would increase the state’s anti-tobacco efforts and perhaps free up more money to deliver more health care to California’s poor.

Although they are averse to taxes, Republicans should make an exception in the interest of public health, and follow the lead of Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval, a Republican. He signed legislation earlier this year raising Nevada’s tobacco tax by $1 to $1.80 per pack.

The current tax doesn’t deal at all with e-cigarettes, the one segment of the nicotine delivery market that’s booming.

Less than 12 percent of Californians now smoke, thanks to the state’s ongoing public health efforts. Indeed, at least a half-dozen new anti-smoking initiatives will be considered in the final two weeks of the legislative session.

The current tax doesn’t deal at all with e-cigarettes, the one segment of the nicotine delivery market that’s booming. More than 470 brands of electronic cigarettes now crowd the market in more than 7,700 flavors from Captain Crunch to Atomic Fireball to cotton candy. With names like that, it’s not hard to guess the target demographic. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, e-cigarette use among middle and high school students tripled between 2013 and 2014.

While researchers are still determining the health impact of inhaling nicotine vapor, taxing one nicotine delivery system and not another creates an effective discount that makes vaping even more attractive to adolescents. To the extent that e-cigarettes are acting as a gateway drug to carcinogenic, conventional smoking, that’s just bad policy.

So the tax needs updating, and in a hurry. Medi-Cal is consuming tens of billions of dollars a year and its costs are rising, with too few doctors serving too many Medi-Cal patients. It’s a serious problem, and strategically targeted tobacco tax revenue would help.

The tobacco industry has pulled out all the stops to protect its investment in the e-cig market and to prevent the law from treating e-cigarettes like other tobacco products. As the tobacco tax proceeds, there surely will be pressure to leave e-cigarettes untaxed or to dial back on other proposals to address them.

Lawmakers should resist the temptation to cut such a deal. And they should pass this tax increase themselves, thoughtfully, rather than let its supporters put it on the 2016 ballot. Tobacco industry money has beaten back too many well-meaning initiatives in California. Public health should take precedence.

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