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Editorial: Tax on e-cigs a clear yes; on nicotine levels, it’s cloudier

New Mexico already taxes cigarettes, cigars and smokeless products such as dip, chew and snuff. And the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is in the process of extending its authority over cigarettes, tobacco and smokeless tobacco to items “that meet the definition of a tobacco product,” including electronic cigarettes.

So there is a clear line of reasoning for the state to add e-cigs to items on which it levies a so-called sin tax. But basing that tax on nicotine content – albeit well-intentioned – gets a little cloudy.

New Mexico already levies a flat $1.66 tax on each pack of cigarettes, and taxes cigars and smokeless products at the rate of 25 percent of the product’s value. Sen. Cisco McSorley, D-Albuquerque, plans to reintroduce his 2015 legislation next session to tax e-cigarettes and other vaping products based on their nicotine content.

“What we need to do is be sure this poisonous, deadly chemical that’s very addictive is not fed to our population without the corresponding ability to continue and enhance research, and try to prevent people from taking up nicotine in the first place,” he says.

It’s a noble goal; yet New Mexico does not vary its taxes on more traditional tobacco products based on nicotine content, though that content can vary widely – from 8 mg to 20 mg in one cigarette and 4.4 mg to 25 mg in a gram of snuff, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

And it’s worth noting that the carcinogen in cigarettes and smokeless tobacco products isn’t the nicotine, which is what makes them so addictive, but the added tar and chemicals. Despite varying nicotine rates in different brands of cigarettes, the amount someone absorbs by smoking one is around 1 mg, and the National Cancer Institute maintains that “users of smokeless tobacco and users of cigarettes have comparable levels of nicotine in the blood.”

That relatively constant absorption rate aligns with a standard tax, which aligns with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ statement that “there is no risk-free level of exposure to tobacco smoke, and there is no safe tobacco product.”

That line of thinking is supported by research that has found up to 10 times more formaldehyde – a cancer-causing substance also used in embalming – in some e-cigs than conventional cigarettes.

Considering the potential health risks these new products pose, the FDA is right to bring e-cigs and vaping products under its purview, and New Mexico would be right to tax them, especially because a portion of the revenue traditionally goes to health-care facilities and cancer treatment funds.

The key for New Mexico legislators will be clearing the air on exactly how to apply that tax fairly.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.