OPINION: California is overtaxing a public health necessity: e-cigarettes

According to the Center of Disease Control, cigarettes are responsible for about 480,000 deaths each year in America, and account for about 20 percent of the yearly death toll in the United States, as of 2014. The CDC estimates that over five million children in America today are expected to die prematurely from a smoking-related illness if the rate of tobacco use remains the same.

If only there were a solution — some sort of nifty alternative that delivers nicotine in the same manner as a cigarette without harmful chemicals.

Fortunately, the epidemic of tobacco-related illness and death does have a perfectly viable, and already existing, solution: the Juul. California shouldn’t be taxing Juuls to the point where they’re no longer accessible to people who need them most.

The device, manufactured by Juul Labs, is a compact e-cigarette that resembles a flash drive. It consists of a small battery, into which juice pods can be inserted, and subsequently consumed via inhalation. The pods contain approximately 0.7 milliliters of e-liquid with 5 percent nicotine by weight and come in a variety of flavors, including mint, mango and fruit medley. The United Kingdom’s Department of Health reports that the Juul and products like it are at least 95 percent safer than cigarettes.

The Juul is much safer than cigarettes because it delivers nicotine to the body without combustion, a process found in smoking that produces tar and releases disease-causing chemicals like hydrogen cyanide and carbon monoxide. With the Juul, however, the user receives a dose of nicotine, which in and of itself is nowhere near as harmful to one’s health, without ingesting the tar and harmful chemicals. As South African psychiatrist Mike Russell put it, “[People] smoke for [the] nicotine, but they die from the tar.”

The popularity of e-cigarettes like the Juul is on the rise, while cigarette use is declining. California, where about 11 percent of the population smokes cigarettes, should be thrilled. However, this is not the case.

The California government, in fact, treats the Juul as an equivalent to deadly cigarettes. Under Proposition 56, which was passed in 2016, each individual cigarette is subject to a $0.10 tax increase. This tax increase was then sloppily applied to Juul pods (and similar devices), bumping up the price up about $2 per pod.

Proposition 56 resulted in an $8 increase for each pack of Juul pods, bringing the total up to nearly $30. The average price of a pack of Marlboro Reds in California is around $8. This is a stark contrast from prices in other states, like New York, where a pack of pods is about $17, and the average cigarette pack is around $15.

It makes little sense for California — a state where according to tobaccofreekids.org, more than 40,000 individuals die each year from tobacco use — to slap such a heavy tax on the potentially life-saving Juul. It makes even less sense that they would do this while allowing cigarette prices to remain so low.

Part of the revenue collected from the Proposition 56 tax goes toward tobacco use prevention. Essentially, the government is taking money from the users of a popular, tobacco-free market substitute for cigarettes, in order to put it back into preventing people from using tobacco. However, this practice is incredibly counterproductive.

Not only is this strategy ineffective in preventing tobacco use, but it also drives potential tobacco users back into tobacco use. The choice for nicotine addicts is this: Spend $25 on three packs of cigarettes, or $30 on one pack of Juul pods. The choice is relatively clear for any economic-minded consumer.

The state government ought to incentivize the purchase of Juul and similar devices instead of cigarettes in order to curb the tens of thousands of deaths each year that result from tobacco use. At the very least, the state shouldn’t tax a market substitute for cigarettes, which is estimated to be about 95 percent safer than cigarettes, at the same level it taxes cigarettes. If it’s a matter of revenue, split the difference; bump up the tax on actual tobacco cigarettes and decrease Juul pod prices so that they’re at least on par with one another.  

For the sake of public health, for the sake of the lives of millions of smokers across the state, state legislators must exclude Juul pods from the Proposition 56 tax. Juul is not part of the problem, but part of the solution.