COMMENTARY: Battle over E-cigarettes in Oklahoma is getting lost in the weeds
By Patrick B. McGuigan
OKLAHOMA CITY — As a new legislative week begins at the Oklahoma Capitol, proposals are advancing to clarify that e-cigarettes are products that cannot be sold to minors. Such is already policy in many businesses which sell such devices. In simplistic terms, at least, the disagreement is not over the question of sales to youth, although that comes up in most discussions of the new proposals.
Disagreements about the bills are in plain view, but rest on distinctions made in the weeds – in the details of existing laws, court rulings, the silence of federal law, proposed regulations and emerging science. The future of e-cigs gets wrapped up in discussions over phrases like “electronic smoking devices” and “personal vaporizers,” and such.
Advocates of e-cigs testify passionately about benefits gained from abandoning traditional cigarettes to use non-tobacco products, but antagonists consider the devices gateways to tobacco use.
In or out of the weeds, the e-cigs often get confused with “alternative nicotine products,” largely because of provisions like those proposed in the Legislature that would amend the Prevention of Youth Access to Tobacco Act. Wording within the proposed reforms touch both non-smoke tobacco products and e-cigs, assuring the issues might be blended in final consideration.
In the absence of a Food and Drug Administration edict on the comparative safety or danger of personal vaporizers (as fans dub them), those who want to treat e-cigs as the moral and technical equivalent of tobacco have and nearly free rein to denounce the products or to ignore the independent studies finding them safe, or comparatively so.
‘Twas not always thus.
Not so long ago, e-cigarettes in nascent stages of development were largely unregulated hereabouts. Presently, they face “only” normal sales taxes, like any other legal product, but not the punitive taxes applied to tobacco products.
Now vapor products are under clear attack, in measures at all levels of Oklahoma government, and in the rest of the land of the free.
They face a ban on state property due to Gov. Fallin’s executive order issued on Christmas Eve (http://capitolbeatok.com/reports/oklahoma-gov-mary-fallin-bans-use-of-e-cigarettes-on-public-property), and were the focus of a striking state Health Department “advisory.” (http://www.ok.gov/health/Organization/Office_of_Communications/News_Releases/2013_News_Releases/E-Cigarettes_and_Other_Vapor_Products.html). At the local level, including the state’s largest public universities, they face a cluster of stiffer new regulations or outright bans. Those efforts have been encouraged through a controversial grant program run by the state Tobacco Settlement Endowment Truast (TSET), incentivizing local governments to attack e-cigarettes. (http://capitolbeatok.com/reports/few-dare-call-it-bribery-grants-e-cigs-and-another-brick-in-the-wall).
The new legislative efforts to keep vapor products out of the maelstrom of new government regulation could be viewed as merely a defense of the state’s semi-libertarian status quo over recent decades, one that will soon, without new laws along the lines proposed in House Bill 3104 and Senate Bill 1602, be a distant memory.
Emergence of personal vapor products and development of new alternative nicotine products have expanded the arena personal choice for thousands of Oklahomans, and you might think that would be largely a good thing.
Yet these devices have also awakened the urge of government officials to regulate or tax the products.
And, as the old saying goes, the power to tax is the power to destroy.