Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Kentucky Tobacco Taxes: The Rest of the Story

Kentucky’s tobacco opponents are furious.  Their coalition crusaded for big tax increases on all tobacco products, but the State House of Representatives instead passed a 50-cent tax increase on cigarettes and left chew/dip products and e-cigarettes alone.  That is in keeping with the rational tax plan (here) authored by me, released by the Pegasus Institute last Fall and supported by 16 tobacco research and policy experts from Kentucky and across the U.S.

Coalition member Al Cross objected in a March 2 commentary in the Louisville Courier-Journal that we “didn’t know or tell the whole story.”  He is wrong, and here’s why.

Cross implied that our proposal was linked to tobacco companies, alleging, “It appears that tobacco companies ‘came out with the 50-cent proposal to kind of blunt the effort to go to a dollar or higher,’ said Ben Chandler, president of the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky.”

This is false.  Tobacco companies had nothing to do with our proposal; it was the result of years of work in the field of tobacco harm reduction and health economics.  I first described this approach in the Tallahassee Democrat 15 years ago (here).  We based our current Kentucky tax plan on a 2015 article in the New England Journal of Medicine written by three prestigious tobacco policy experts.  Two of them supported our proposal, along with fourteen other experts. 

Cross’s article contained inconsistent statements.  He claimed that “50 cents more a pack wouldn’t be a big hit for most smokers,” but then wrote, “The big hit would be felt by lower-income people, who are more likely to be smokers.”  Chandler was even more insensitive: “you’ve got to have the sticker shock…”   

Indeed.  We acknowledged that even a 50-cent increase “could present a severe financial challenge to Kentucky smokers, many of whom have only limited resources.”  We made it clear that we are not interested in punishing smokers; our cigarette tax increase is not meant to force them to quit.  Instead, we “encourage and incentivize smokers to quit or switch to less expensive and vastly safer smoke-free tobacco products” like smokeless tobacco and e-cigarettes. 

Decades of epidemiologic studies document that the health risks of dipping and chewing tobacco are, at most, a mere two percent of those of smoking.  Unlike cigarettes, smokeless tobacco does not cause lung cancer, heart and circulatory diseases or emphysema.  A recent government-funded study conducted by federal researchers and experienced epidemiologists found that men who dip or chew tobacco have no excess risk for mouth cancer (here).    

Kentucky men will be especially interested in this information.  Federal survey data shows that 226,000 dip or chew tobacco, 90,000 of whom also smoke.  These dual users don’t know that smokeless is vastly safer; our proposal gives them information and a financial incentive to escape the smoke. 

Tax policy should encourage smokers to switch to e-cigarettes, which already are among the most common – and the most successful – quit aids in the U.S. (here).  While federal health agencies demonize these devices, United Kingdom government and health organizations endorse them based on solid science.  The prestigious British Royal College of Physicians has stated, “…the hazard to health arising from long-term vapour inhalation from the e-cigarettes available today is unlikely to exceed 5% of the harm from smoking tobacco.”  Britain’s Department of Health last year formally endorsed the substitution of e-cigarettes by smokers.

Cross wrote that “Smoking-related health costs in the state are near $2 billion a year.”  We address that concern: “Federal and state spending for Medicaid in Kentucky for fiscal year 2016 was $9.66 billion; smoking was responsible for $1.47 billion. The only way for the Commonwealth to lower these high costs is to provide every option for smoking cessation, including vastly safer cigarette substitutes.”

Cross mentioned “retailers along the state’s border who sell lots of cigarettes to people from states where the taxes are higher.”  We addressed that by trying to “correct cross-border discrepancies in cigarette excise taxes affecting large populations across the Ohio and Indiana borders, and avoid creating other significant cross-border discrepancies.” (emphasis added)

It is well documented that traditional quit-smoking methods, which strive for complete nicotine and tobacco abstinence, fail to help over 90% of smokers.  Kentucky Medicaid currently spends millions on expensive and failure-prone FDA-approved stop-smoking medicines (nicotine patches, gum, lozenges, bupropion, varenicline, and nasal spray and inhalers).    

Our tax proposal offers a superior approach, at no additional cost to the commonwealth.  It incentivizes smokers to switch to smokeless tobacco or e-cigarettes.  The Senate should have acknowledged the substantial health risk differentials between combustible and smoke-free tobacco products, and endorsed the House bill.  Smokers who switch will spend less, and live longer, healthier lives. 

Friday, March 16, 2018

Smokers Deserve Improved FDA E-Cigarette Regulation: Pass Cole-Bishop

It’s no secret: E-cigarettes are vastly safer, increasingly popular and successful substitutes for traditional tobacco cigarettes.  More and more smokers are replacing combustible tobacco with vapor technology to reduce their health risks (here), or even to ultimately eliminate their nicotine consumption.  This is a particularly important development for my home state Kentucky, where smoking and lung cancer rates are among the highest in the country.

Unfortunately, government bureaucrats, dreaming of a tobacco-free society (read: prohibition), are trying to condemn the emerging e-cigarette industry to regulatory purgatory. The FDA’s plan to retroactively enforce cigarette-style regulations on vapor could decimate e-cigarettes, which are cigarettes’ greatest potential adversary. 

Cigarettes burn tobacco, creating smoke that contains thousands of harmful toxins. Vaping products, on the other hand, heat e-liquid into an aerosol.  They eliminate combustion, which significantly reduces toxic byproducts.  Many e-cigarettes don’t even contain nicotine.  

E-cigarettes barely existed in 2009 when Congress passed the tobacco legislation that the FDA is trying to retro-fit to vapor.  Furthermore, the agency interpreted the law to require that any e-cigarette or vapor product not on the market in February 2007 – in other words, every product on the market today – pass an onerous, expensive and time-consuming review.  Similar regulatory hurdles would apply even when a manufacturer only wants to upgrade a battery, develop a new e-liquid or make even minor improvements. 

E-cigarettes are among Americans’ most commonly used quit-smoking aids. In fact, they are the only aid more likely to make one a former smoker (that is, a successful quitter) than quitting cold-turkey, according to an analysis I recently published using FDA survey data (here and here).  Without these products, smokers face a difficult choice: try FDA-approved smoking cessation products that have a documented 93% failure rate, go cold turkey, or remain a smoker.  FDA regulation should not subject smokers to such a quit-or-die predicament when alternatives like e-cigarettes are available.

Congress must intervene in the interest of public health, by passing the Cole-Bishop Amendment, which contains provisions to ensure that smokers across the U.S. continue to have access to safer cigarette substitutes.   

The Cole-Bishop Amendment would grandfather products that are already on the market.  It supports consumer safeguards such as manufacturing standards and accurate product labeling. Bottom line: Cole-Bishop provisions recognize the scientific and technological differences between vapor and smoke and the significant differences in their risk profiles.  It has broad consumer support, including a coalition of sixteen center-right public policy organizations and think tanks (here) and all major vaping groups.

Vapor products represent a vital “fire escape” for millions of inveterate smokers. FDA regulations should not make it more difficult for people to stop smoking, and stay smoke-free. 

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Beyond the Headlines: Trace Toxins, Present in All Teens, Improperly Blamed on E-Cigarettes

The University of California San Francisco publicized a study on March 5, asserting that “Adolescents who smoke e-cigarettes are exposed to significant levels of potentially cancer-causing chemicals.” (here)  The study’s lead author, Mark Rubinstein, M.D., said, “Teenagers need to be warned that the vapor produced by e-cigarettes…actually contains some of the same toxic chemicals found in smoke from traditional cigarettes.”

This led to messaging that vaping is just as dangerous as smoking -- “Teens Using E-Cigarette Have the Same Toxic Chemicals Found in Smokers” (here), “E-Cigarette Users Ingest High Levels of Cancer-Causing Chemicals” (here).

In fact, the research, published in Pediatrics, analyzed urine, not vapor.  The study reports the presence of minute amounts of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the urine of teens who didn’t smoke or vape (i.e., controls), e-cigarette users, and dual users of e-cigarettes and cigarettes.

Here are the study results:

Median VOC Levels (ng/mg*) in the Urine of Controls, E-Cig Users and Dual Users

Parent CompoundControlsE-Cig UsersDual Users

Ethylene Oxide1.30.51.0
Propylene Oxide152940
*ng/mg = parts per MILLION (creatinine)

Significantly, there were no cigarette smokers in the study.  Existing research tells us that their VOC levels would have been far higher, undercutting the UCSF anti-e-cigarette narrative.

Note that there are no alarming elevations in benzene or butadiene, and levels of ethylene oxide were actually lower among users than controls.  This data indicates that teens virtually no exposure to these chemicals.

While levels of other agents are higher in e-cigarette users and especially in dual users, levels in controls are not zero. 

The authors are on shaky ground in their attribution of higher toxin levels among e-cigarette users to the vapor.  A previous study (co-authored by one of the current authors, here) that they cite failed to find any acrolein and crotonaldehyde in vapor from 12 e-cigarettes.  A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study (here) found that nonsmokers’ urine had up to 245 ng/g of acrolein and up to 158 ng/g of propylene oxide (smokers had far higher levels of both).  Thus, toxin levels seen in e-cigarette users in the new UCSF report are not necessarily due to vapor.

The UCSF research ignores a possible alternative source of these contaminants: recent marijuana smoking, as shown in a CDC study that identified elevated VOC levels among tokers (here).  As I recently noted (here), marijuana use is more prevalent among teens than vaping or cigarette smoking; data from one federal survey shows that about 40% of teen vapers are current marijuana users.  These findings increase the odds that toking impacted results in the new study.

The UCSF research was supported by four grants totaling some $32 million from the National Institutes of Health to authors Rubenstein, Neal Benowitz and Stanton Glantz.