Stenhouse: Why McKee’s Budget Might Increase Smoking Deaths?

Another false government narrative … and this one might prove deadly.

The debate over taxing e-cigarettes resumed in recent State House hearings on Governor Dan McKee’s proposed 2025 budget proposal, as radical anti-smoking advocacy groups, along with tyrants in our state government, have created yet another boogey-man that they are seeking to slay.

Unfortunately, rather the seeking to reduce taxes and improve our state’s dismal business climate, creating jobs and economic growth and demonstrating some level of fiscal responsibility, McKee’s tax on vaping products is yet another capitulation to the radical Left; a mindless exercise in social engineering that will harm our state’s economy … and the health of many Ocean State smokers.

McKee’s FY 2025 budget not only codifies the existing RIDOH regulatory ban on flavored vapor products, including menthol, but it also includes an oppressively high 80% wholesale tax on all e-cigarettes. This misguided proposal would not only imperil the fight to reduce cigarette smoking disease but also will cost jobs and ruin many small businesses by giving up a rare economic advantage enjoyed by Ocean State vape shops.

How many Rhode Island smokers will die? On the health front, considering how difficult it is to quit the unhealthy habit of smoking traditional cigarettes, it is mind-boggling that McKee would impose such massive costs on the one product that has helped millions of Americans “kick the habit” … by not by going cold turkey but, instead, by switching to tobacco-free vaping as an alternative.

Numerous studies have demonstrated that smokeless vapor products are far less harmful than cigarettes, such that transitioning to vaping can be an effective way to quit smoking. McKee’s proposed 80% vaping tax represents a barrier that could prevent many smokers from accessing these less-harmful vaping products and send them back to cigarettes … leading to more disease and deaths.

On the economic front, Rhode Island is the only New England state that does not currently impose a tax on e-cigarettes, which means Ocean State retailers benefit from cross-border shoppers from Connecticut and Massachusetts. Why would McKee eliminate this competitive advantage when, one way or another, shoppers will seek to find a way to buy their vaping products?

One such way is the black market. Such a massive tax on vaping products won’t stop most Rhode Islanders from vaping; it will just shift their purchases away from legitimate small businesses in the Ocean State and toward illegal online sales, the underground market, or businesses in lower-tax states. Most of us who have purchased tax-free alcohol in New Hampshire understand this pattern.

Worse, this e-cigarette tax will further enable illicit shippers of counterfeit and dangerous vaping products from countries such as China. These shameless foreign actors directly target states that enact these types of barriers by introducing low-cost counterfeit products into the market. Their illegal vaping products, which don’t have FDA authorization, have been found to harm users, including children. Do we really want more of these products in our state?

We have seen this movie before. More than 90 years ago, the federal Volstead Act prohibited the sale of alcohol. But the consumption of alcohol did not end; instead a thriving underworld of bootlegging and organized crime emerged. McKee’s proposed measures against flavored tobacco and vaping products are likely to spawn similar unintended consequences by driving related commerce underground, where the quality and safety of products cannot be guaranteed.

McKee and advocates of this tax on vapor products advance the false narrative that it will protect children and raise $5-6 million in tax revenues. The reality is that e-cigarettes, for many years now, have become a target of those who seek more and more government control over our lives. Vapors and smokers will simply resort to other means to buy these products, meaning actual tax receipts will fall far short of projections.

Over the years, Rhode Island has taken many positive steps forward in combatting smoking. It does not make sense to now take a giant leap backward because of yet another false narrative contrived by the anti-smoking cabal.

The Volstead act was eventually repealed. General Assembly leaders must not fall for the Governor’s ruse and must preserve the freedom, health, and prosperity of Ocean State smokers and vaping retailers … by not enacting McKee’s e-cigarette tax in the first place.

Mike Stenhouse is CEO of the nonpartisan Rhode Island Center for Freedom & Prosperity

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