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Tax the heck out of vaping, but be careful

When young people are being hurt, government has an obligation to act. That should be beyond debate. How to act, however, is up to a lot of debate.

FILE - In this April 16, 2019 file photo, a woman exhales while vaping from a Juul pen e-cigarette in Vancouver, Wash. Schools have been wrestling with how to balance discipline with treatment in their response to the soaring numbers of vaping students. U
In this April 16, 2019 file photo, a woman exhales while vaping from a Juul pen e-cigarette in Vancouver, Wash. Schools have been wrestling with how to balance discipline with treatment in their response to the soaring numbers of vaping students.
Craig Mitchelldyer, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — Sin taxes present governments with an interesting paradox. They discourage people from doing things that ruin their health and cause misery to the people around them.

At the same time, they make governments dependent on the money that comes from bad behavior.

Another way of saying this is that sin taxes often concern themselves with two types of addiction — that of people who drink, smoke or gamble, and that of governments who might end up relying on them for money.

In five states — Nevada, Rhode Island, West Virginia, New Hampshire and Delaware — these taxes make up the largest share of tax revenues, according to governing.com.

In Utah, sin taxes make up only 2.6% of the total, according to 2014 figures made available by governing.com. That still accounted for $161 million.

Which brings us to the subject of e-cigarettes.

Some Utah lawmakers are ready to tax the heck out of them, to put it in terms suitable for a family newspaper. And make no mistake, these products are causing a lot of heck right now. The Utah Department of Health currently is investigating 21 separate cases of lung disease related to these relatively new products, and most of the victims are young adults. That number is four times larger than just a week earlier, and the figure is expected to grow.

Officials say some of the patients “vape,” as users call it, on a regular basis. Others vape both tobacco and marijuana products. Still others vape only occasionally. Yet all are getting sick, and no one is certain exactly why. Similar experiences are being reported by health departments nationwide.

When young people are being hurt, government has an obligation to act. That should be beyond debate. How to act, however, is up to a lot of debate.

Utah could follow San Francisco’s example and outlaw the product all together, or it could tax it, a lot.

But e-cigarettes already are illegal for anyone under 21. Banning them might inadvertently push kids with nicotine addictions onto traditional cigarettes, instead. And it might harm adult smokers who are using e-cigarettes to curtail their habits.

That makes taxation a more attractive tool. The Health and Human Service Interim Committee of the Utah Legislature voted unanimously last week to recommend an 86% excise tax on the products, which would increase the retail price by about 50%.

“The ideal,” according to Rep. Karianne Lisonbee, R-Clearfield, “is that there would be no tax revenue in the future from this, because we would have prevented everybody from partaking in such an unhealthy practice.”

Which is, of course, unrealistic. If it were that easy, nobody would smoke regular cigarettes these days after decades of taxes and bad publicity. It’s true a lot fewer people do smoke today than 50 years ago, which is a good thing. But it’s also true that addictions are powerful, and the reasons kids vape are complicated.

Doctors, and the kids themselves, will tell you a lot of them do it because they have severe anxiety or depression and they see this as a way to self-medicate. After a while, feeding a nicotine addiction can bring a false sense of relief from anxiety. The National Institutes of Health says nearly one-third of kids 13 to 18 will experience an anxiety disorder, and the number is rapidly rising.

A local group called Students Against Electronic Vaping said about 42,000 Utah students vape on a daily basis, and every 10% increase in the price of those products would result in a decrease in use.

It wouldn’t get to the heart of why kids are doing it in the first place. And it might push them to self-medicate in other ways. But doing nothing isn’t an answer, either.

Some lawmakers hope to earmark this new tax to funding programs that educate kids about the dangers.

That’s noble, but it needs some perspective. The sponsor of a failed bill to tax vaping earlier this year said it would raise about $21 million today, up from $9.4 million last year.

Obviously, the money could quickly exceed what would be reasonable for a great disincentive program.

In the end, this can’t be about the money. State lawmakers must attack this problem with any tool available. But they shouldn’t just create a new stream of revenue without committing themselves to constantly monitoring it so they don’t become too addicted to the bad behavior they’re trying to prevent.