Vapers: welcome to the over-taxed club

Posted on March 2, 2016

Governments spend money and need to raise taxes to pay for that spending. As irritating as it is to have our pockets picked constantly, the Revenue will use all sorts of means of extracting our cash at every point we earn or spend money. But in some cases, taxation is used to punish us for our bad behaviour to an astonishing degree - and no more so than when it comes to smoking. On some cheaper brands of cigarettes, tax makes up 88 per cent of the final retail price. Smokers are such outcasts that punitive taxation is easy for ministers to justify. No wonder that Forest is currently campaigning to stop the neverending inflation-busting increases in tobacco taxes.

Now vapers are finding themselves in the same boat. The Times reports today that the European Commission has been told to draw up plans to bring taxes on e-cigarettes into line with tobacco cigarettes. As smoking rates have declined, so tax revenues have declined. (And as tax rates have increased, so has the appetite for smuggled and black market tobacco, too.) So treasuries across Europe are worried that without the steady supply of hard cash fleeced from the pockets of smokers, budget deficits will rise.

The main complaint against the move is that it could be bad for public health. It is certainly true that the health risks associated with e-cigs look to be very much lower than with tobacco cigarettes - probably even lower than the '95 per cent safer' suggested by Public Health England last year. Slapping tobacco-style taxes on e-cigs will undoubtedly make them less attractive to smokers thinking about switching and further reduce the number of people switching to them.

But there is a more fundamental argument to be had. Why on earth is it acceptable at all for any legal consumer product to have such an eye-watering level of tax imposed upon it? Smokers and vapers are adults who have a clear sense of any health risks that their habits entail. We don't need the EU or national governments to bankrupt us for our sins.

The crocodile tears of anti-tobacco campaigners, shocked that their new weapon in the drive towards a 'tobacco endgame' is under threat, are truly nauseating. Having spent decades attacking smokers' right to choose how to live their lives through bans and punitive taxation, they are in no position to question the desire of governments to keep the money flowing. As a fig-leaf for this policy, we can fully expect Eurocrats to cobble together dubious junk science about the health threat from e-cigs - just as anti-tobacco campaigners have endlessly used junk science about passive smoking and protecting children to justify their own illiberal policy aims.

This is why arguments about health are always problematic. In the world of evidence-based policy, anyone with an axe to grind merely needs to come up with some policy-based evidence to make their case for one restriction or another. What we really need to do is make the case for choice - for the freedom of individual adult citizens to weigh up risk and pleasure for themselves. That's something that both smokers and vapers - and dual users - can be working together to achieve.