Most attention in the tobacco and harm reduction space this last week was focussed on a proposal by the FDA to bring back the failed policies of the past and introduce prohibition for menthol cigarettes, a move opposed by a bipartisan coalition of over 50 organizations from all sides of the political spectrum, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Rev Al Sharpton, Americans for Tax Reform, and Heritage Action. Given how this proposal would do nothing to reduce smoking rates, but instead criminalizing a product used by over 18 million Americans, primarily from minority communities, create dangerous confrontations between minorities and law enforcement, set back criminal justice reform, create a windfall for international criminal syndicates, and hurt state government windfall, this is understandable. 

Sadly, however, this was not the only bad proposal coming from Democrats recently in this field.  Not content with proposing to punish Americans saving for retirement with crippling capital gains taxes on their nest eggs, or reducing worker salaries through hiking the corporate tax, late last week Senator Durbin & congressional democrats unveiled plans to introduce one of the most regressive tax hikes on poorest Americans in living memory. In clear violation of President Biden’s unequivocal promise to not raise taxes on Americans earning under $400,000, if this bill was to pass, poorer Americans unable to quit smoking would be slugged with a doubling of the federal tobacco tax. To make matters worse, in an even more cynical grab for cash, the plan would also impose crippling new taxes on the most effective quitting aids on the market, forcing people to continue smoking to help feed Congress’s addiction to taxpayer cash.

With 72% of smokers coming from low-income communities, the burden of tobacco taxation already falls heavily on those who can least afford it. More than a quarter of Americans living below the poverty line smoke, and when combined with state and local taxes, pack-a-day minimum wage workers could be spending over half their annual salary on their habit.

Empirical data demonstrates that cigarette taxes no longer having any impact upon smoking rates, the outcomes are tragic. Either families cut back and struggle to put food on the table, or they turn to the black market, purchasing illicit low-cost tobacco. This black market trade, already accounting for more than 50% of all tobacco sales in cities like New York, not only deprives federal and state governments of revenue, but is a major source of funding for international criminal syndicates, which, according to the State Department, are becoming dominated by terrorist organizations to the extent it now represent a serious “threat to national security”. 

Rather than propose a tax that would do nothing to reduce smoking rates, but would hurt low-income earners, reduce state government revenue, and enrich criminal syndicates, Sen. Durbin should instead seek to follow the science, and heed the advice of over 40 of the world’s leading medical organizations. By delivering nicotine, itself a benign, albeit highly addictive, substance similar to caffeine, without the thousands of deadly chemical created by the combustion process of “burning” cigarettes,  innovative new technologies have helped smokers around the world quit in record numbers.

The evidence is clear that vapor products have been proven to be 95% safer than combustible cigarettes, at least twice as effective at helping smokers quit than traditional nicotine replacement therapies, and with a 92.5% success rate at reducing or eliminating smoking rates amongst people suffering from mental health issues, who presently smoke at three times the general population rate. According to Georgetown University Medical Center, if a majority of American smokers switched to vaping,  6.6 million lives would be saved. 

Rather than helping smokers quit, however, Sen. Durbin bizarrely instead proposes to keep smokers hooked to their deadly habit, by making these life-saving products unaffordable with a slew of new taxes. These proposals include not only staggering new taxes on vapor products, but a two thousand fold increase in the tax on other reduced risk products. This includes on those that the Food & Drug Administration authorizers manufacturers to market as one that would “reduce your risk of cancer”. According to modeling undertaken by the National Bureau of Economic Research, were Sen. Durbin’s proposal enacted, it would prevent a staggering 2.75 million people from quitting smoking. 

With fewer than 5% of young Americans smoking, the priority of Federal lawmakers must now be how to help adult smokers quit. Sadly, in their desperate grab for cash to pay for chronic overspending, Sen. Durbin and his allies would seem to prefer smokers continue smoking –  and die as a result. The time has come for President Biden to show leadership, reiterate his pre-election promise, and pledge to fight against this immoral bill. Millions of lives depend on it.