People running for political office don’t normally promise to raise taxes, but the proposal now being pushed by Council President Brandon Scott, the Democratic nominee for Baltimore mayor, has broad appeal — and for good reason. This week, he introduced legislation that would impose a hefty 30% tax on electronic cigarettes, vape pens and similar devices, which is the exact same rate that Montgomery County has charged since it became one of the first jurisdictions in the nation to impose a tax on vaping products in 2015. Prior to the pandemic, Montgomery County collected about $150,000 a month from the tax; this year it has been closer to $100,000, according to the county’s financial records.
So what might Baltimore collect? Given that Montgomery County is about 80% larger than Baltimore and its average household income about 80% higher, presumably much less. Surely no more than $1 million per year. But given the impact of COVID-19 and the threat of shrinking tax revenues on vital programs such as K-12 public education, public health and other safety net programs, this could prove exceedingly useful. Raising taxes during an economic downturn is far from ideal, but sin taxes that discourage unhealthy behavior? That’s a different story. It won’t put JUUL Labs — nor even the mom-and-pop stores that sell vaping pens — out of business, but it might keep teacher’s aides or firefighters on the job while discouraging a harmful behavior.
Yet there’s another issue here that ought to be a priority for Mr. Scott and the City Council: how best to keep e-cigarettes out of the hands of young people. E-cigarettes are not the “safe” habit that manufacturers would want you to believe. What they represent is an efficient way to deliver nicotine through vapor using these battery-powered devices rather than by smoking. And while there are some potential benefits to certain individuals (adults seeking to curtail smoking, for example), vaping has also been linked to a variety of adverse health outcomes including, most recently, an increased susceptibility to catching the coronavirus (just as smokers face).
While the impact on minors is still a matter being studied closely by researchers, there is enough known to be deeply troubled by this apparent epidemic of vaping-related lung illness. The American Medical Association has long argued for more restrictions on vaping nationwide, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned certain fruit- and mint-flavored e-cigarette cartridges that are popular with children earlier this year, and a proposal to prohibit menthol flavored vaping products is expected before the Maryland General Assembly in January. State lawmakers already approved a tax on vaping devices and liquids as part of a broad tobacco tax legislation that would have raised cigarette prices $1.75 per pack, but the measure was vetoed by Gov. Larry Hogan. Mr. Hogan insisted that the economic downturn wrought by COVID-19 was no time to raise taxes of any kind given the already heavy burden on consumers and business owners.
You know what else is a heavy burden? Addiction, serious illness and premature death. We doubt that charging more for a vaping pen — $30 instead of $23, for example — is destined to wipe out the neighborhood convenience store. Nor will it keep the city government in full-service mode, of course. But what might be its actual impact? It might discourage a young person, someone who has never developed a nicotine habit, from investing in this potentially destructive device. Just as higher cigarette prices have weaned some teens from smoking, higher vaping costs may do the same. And, by the way, yes, we are aware that it’s already illegal for someone under the age of 21 to buy an e-cigarette (or any tobacco product) in Maryland, yet it still seems to happen.
That’s why looking at Mr. Scott’s proposal as a tax increase probably isn’t the correct perspective. It’s a potential public health measure. And just like any other public health proposal, it will need to be vetted closely. What would be the impact on consumer use? How does it fit with the state legislature’s approach to tobacco taxes (particularly given the prospect of a veto override)? Will it have an adverse side effect of discouraging adult smokers from switching to e-cigarettes? The revenue is of far less consequence. Montgomery County’s economy continued just fine after it adopted a similar tax five years ago. This may not be the most urgent health threat facing a city with as much gun violence as Baltimore, but that does not mean the lives seriously harmed by vaping (the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported at least one related lung injury death in every state and more than 50 hospitalizations in Maryland) are to be ignored.
The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.