Heavy-handed vaping regulations and taxation do nothing but create more smokers
Health Canada announced last week that warning labels will now be required on each and every cigarette in a pack.
That global first is part of Canada’s goal to have fewer than five per cent of Canadians smoke by 2035. It’s hard to tell what effect similar measures have had in the past but for whatever reasons tobacco use in Canada has been on a significant decline over the last 15 years. In 2007, 31 per cent of Canadians identified as regular smokers. By 2020, that number was down to just 11 per cent. That’s certainly good news. We all know the devastating impact smoking can have. Approximately 48,000 Canadians die each year from tobacco-related illnesses.
But while the decline in smoking is cause for celebration, new vaping regulations from Ottawa could actually run counter to Health Canada’s smoke-free 2035 goal by pushing some former smokers back to smoking.
Vaping, which is nicotine consumption without the combustion of cigarettes, is dramatically less harmful than smoking, and is therefore widely considered a useful harm reduction tool for smokers trying to quit. A 2017 study from researchers at the University of California found that U.S. census data showed vaping had contributed to a significant increase in smoking cessation. It therefore recommended positive public health communications supporting vaping. That’s the approach being taken in England, with positive results. After Public Health England deemed vaping 95 per cent less harmful than smoking, the U.K. Office of Health decided to promote vaping to adult smokers as part of the country’s own plan to be smoke-free by 2035. It has even created a “swap to stop” program in which smokers can trade in their cigarettes for free vaping devices.
Unfortunately, Canada’s approach to vaping does not embrace harm reduction in the same way the U.K.’s does. Where narcotics and other drugs are concerned, harm reduction is the order of the day in Ottawa. But when it comes to tobacco products, for some reason eradication is still the goal. Thus Ottawa has already sought to ban all vape flavours except tobacco and mint/menthol — even though nearly half of Canadian vapers use flavours as their preferred method to leaving smoking behind, and for good reason. A nationally representative longitudinal study of over 17,000 Americans showed that adults who used flavoured vaping products were 2.3 times more likely to quit smoking when compared to vapers who consumed tobacco-flavoured vaping products. Why is not hard to understand. If you are trying to quit tobacco, being limited to vaping products that taste like tobacco isn’t very helpful.
But Ottawa isn’t just targeting vape flavours. Now it’s also scaling up taxation. The new tax it proposed in April’s budget would add $7 to the price of a 30mL bottle of vape liquid, $10 for a 60 mL bottle, and $14 for a 100 mL bottle. For those who vape with cartridge devices, a four-pack of one-millilitre cartridges, which usually retails for between $24-$26, would have an extra $4 tacked on.
What will be the effect of these tax hikes?
Vape prices are very likely to rise. A 2020 working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research that analyzed data from 35,000 U.S. retailers found that for every dollar increase in taxation vape prices rose between $0.91 and $1.16, meaning that the tax is almost entirely passed on to consumers. For a four-pack of one-millilitre cartridges, prices can be expected to increase between $3.64-$4.64.
And how will vapers respond to these price hikes? Many will go back to smoking. That same NBER study showed that a $1 increase in vape taxes increased cigarette sales by fully 10 per cent.
From a public health perspective this is exactly the wrong approach. We know that vaping is a very useful harm reduction tool. Targeting vaping with flavour bans and high taxation will certainly discourage people from vaping but it will also encourage some former smokers to go back to cigarettes and keep some current smokers from switching to vaping. If Canada wants to have any shot at achieving its smoke-free 2035 goal, we should follow the U.K.’s lead and incorporate vaping as a means to that end. Heavy-handed vaping regulations and taxation do nothing but create more smokers, and no one wins if that happens.
David Clement – Financial Post – 2022-06-15.