Staff Editorial

Tax e-cigarettes, but don't change buying age

Juul Labs Inc. e-cigarettes and BBK Tobacco & Foods Inc. Raw brand rolling papers for sale at the Higher Standards store
Juul Labs Inc. e-cigarettes and BBK Tobacco & Foods Inc. Raw brand rolling papers for sale at the Higher Standards store in New York on Dec. 11, 2018. (Gabby Jones/Bloomberg/TNS)

Iowa lawmakers are reconsidering the legal age to purchase nicotine products.

Supporters of Senate File 607 are worried that 18-year-old high school students are purchasing nicotine products and sharing them with friends and classmates who are minors. That concern has been galvanized recently by the growing popularity of electronic nicotine delivery systems, especially compact e-cigarettes often used by teenagers and young adults.

The vapor craze led to another bill earlier this year that would have increased the age to purchase e-cigarettes and vapor products to 21, but leave tobacco products at 18. That would have been a monumental mistake, inadvertently encouraging young adults to choose cigarettes over potentially safer alternatives. We were glad to see that bill went nowhere.

The new bill would raise the age to purchase both cigarettes and vapor products to 21. That’s better than the previous proposal, but still objectionable.

Our nation recognizes 18 as the age of adulthood. Society entrusts young adults with voting, military service and entering legal contracts. The state government should not be in the business of taking away rights from certain classes of adults.

Nicotine use among high school students is a legitimate public health concern, but it’s not evident the “teen vaping epidemic” is as widespread as some advocates have suggested.

About 20 percent of high school students reported using vapor products in the 2018 National Youth Tobacco Survey, meaning they vaped at least once in the past 30 days.

However, only about 6 percent of students said they were “frequent users,” meaning they used on 20 or more of the preceding 30 days. It’s not clear how many of either group were of legal age.


Remember that e-cigarettes are still a relatively new technology, and there is mixed evidence about their health hazards, the possible gateway effect to cigarettes, and their value as a smoking cessation tool.

While any level of underage substance use is bad, not every case demands a new restriction from state government. As always, policymakers must seek to balance public health with free choice.

While this bill goes too far, it still would be prudent to modernize Iowa Code to account for the mass adoption of alternative nicotine delivery methods. There are proposals in the Legislature to align vapor product taxes with cigarettes and other tobacco products. Tax equity only seems fair.

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