Should vaping be taxed like cigarettes? Some Ohio advocates think so

Public health advocates are lobbying for tobacco taxes on vaping products, a bigger pot of money for cessation and prevention programs, and a statewide law raising the tobacco purchase age to 21.

Smoking is a major public health problem in Ohio and some advocates say more could be done to curb use and save lives. About 1 in 5 Ohioans smoke and tobacco-related diseases kill far more Ohioans every year than opioids — about 20,180 smoking attributable deaths versus 3,497 opioid overdose deaths in 2016.

American Cancer Society lobbyist Jeff Stephens said he is hopeful that Gov. Mike DeWine will include some of the changes in his two-year state budget, which is expected to be released by March 15.

Related: Ohio’s infant mortality drops overall but increases for black babies

Ohio spends $12.5 million on cessation and prevention efforts each year, down from $35 million a decade ago. And while the state places a sales tax and a $1.60 per pack excise tax on a pack of 20 cigarettes, e-cigarettes don’t face an excise tax and other tobacco products, such as chew and snuff, are taxed at 17 percent of wholesale.

More than half of Ohioans support taxing e-cigarettes like a pack of cigarettes, according to a 2018 survey by Ohio Health Issues Poll. Those numbers also represent bipartisan support, with 61 percent of Democrats and 56 percent of Republicans polled saying they favor placing an excise tax on e-cigarettes.

There’s plenty of research that evidence-based policies drive down smoking, including increasing the price of cigarettes and tobacco products, said Amy Bush Stevens of Health Policy Institute of Ohio, which does research for state agencies and policy makers.

“There’s definitely decades of research that shows the more you increase the price, the more you reduce tobacco consumption,” Stevens said.

Smoking also contributes to Ohio’s high infant mortality rate, Stephens said. The national smoking rate for pregnant women is 7.2 percent while the rate in Ohio is 14.4 percent, he said.

Likewise, Ohio’s adult smoking rate is 21.1 percent, compared with the national rate of 15.5 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Related: A decade after voters approved the indoor smoking ban, 20 percent of Ohioans smoke

The American Cancer Society will ask the DeWine administration to again earmark $35 million per year for cessation and prevention programs and boost taxes on other tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, to match the taxes levied on cigarettes.

E-cigarettes are battery-operated devices that heat liquid nicotine into a vapor that the user inhales. Ohio’s voter-approved indoor smoking ban does not apply to e-cigarettes.

Other groups are also pushing Ohio to increase the minimum age for purchasing tobacco in Ohio to 21 from 18. Across the country, 425 cities and counties in 22 states have raised the purchase age to 21, including 17 cities in Ohio, according to

The annual Ohio Health Issues Poll in 2018 found 54 percent of Ohio adults support raising the minimum age to purchase tobacco, compared to about 75 percent of adults nationwide who support raising the age.

Stevens said there have been gaps in Ohio’s policy response to addiction and the state has relatively low taxes on alcohol and tobacco products and low investments in tobacco prevention and cessation.

Ohio has been taxing tobacco since 1893 and the last increase to cigarette taxes came in 2015 when it went to $1.60 per pack of 20. In fiscal year 2018, cigarette and other tobacco product taxes brought in almost $940 million into state coffers. Ohio’s cigarette taxes are lower than in Michigan and Pennsylvania but higher than West Virginia, Kentucky and Indiana, according to the Ohio Department of Taxation.

But Americans for Tax Reform State Projects Director Doug Kellogg said it would be “a huge tragedy” for Ohio to tax vaping the same as cigarettes since some research shows it is less harmful than tobacco products and some smokers use vaping as a method to quit smoking.

The Federal Drug Administration reports that 3.62 million middle and high school students use e-cigarettes and use is increasing. In 2018, nearly 21 percent of high school students used e-cigarettes, up from 11.7 percent in 2017, according to the FDA.

The FDA says research shows nicotine use can rewire a young brain to crave more and emerging evidence suggests e-cigarettes may be harmful to lungs.

Related: FDA, local schools take steps as teen e-cigarette use surges 

Ohio smoking facts & figures

21.1 percent: Ohio's adult smoking rate

20,180: Ohio smoking attributable deaths in 2016

$1.60: Ohio excise tax per cigarette pack of 20