Fueled by Industry Funding, Group Protests State E-Cig Tax
Doctor Gilbert Ross speaks at a rally against new taxes on e-cigarettes.
New York State is considering higher taxes and more restrictions on e-cigarettes, and at least one group is not taking the move lying down.
New Yorkers for Smarter Smoking Alternatives — an industry group opposed to the new regulations — held a rally on the steps of City Hall on Thursday hoping to call attention to the issue.
There was a little giggling as the group began its chant — "No taxation on vaporization" — and shivered in the cold. But the point the activists were making was a serious one: With many smokers saying they "vape" to cut down or even quit their habits, why put new restrictions on a technology that might help save lives?
To describe the protest as a grassroots effort wouldn't be quite accurate: New Yorkers for Smarter Smoking Alternatives describes itself as a representative of local businesses and is linked to a lobbying and public relations firm.
But it largely echoes the arguments made by vaping supporters with no direct industry ties, arguments that were summed up in January by Joe Nocera on the New York Times' op-ed page. Conceding that more research is needed, Nocera wrote, "every dollop of news suggesting that vaping is bad for your health, much of which has been overblown, is irrationally embraced by anti-tobacco activists." He urged readers to reserve judgment.
New York City has already added e-cigarettes to its local smoking ban, making it illegal to vape indoors in public places. The proposal at the state level would do the same beyond the five boroughs and would apply the current state tobacco tax — the nation's highest, at $4.35 per pack — to e-cigarettes.
Heshani Wijemanne, one of the protest organizers, said the state is jumping the gun by attacking a new technology without having data in hand. With the U.S. Food and Drug Administration poised to release a major study on smoking — and its high-tech counterpart — Wijemanne thinks lawmakers should wait until they have the facts.
On the next page: Funding from e-cigarette manufacturers
"Look, we're just trying to say wait until the FDA comes out with their study," Wijemanne said. "Don't just prematurely go and regulate a product without really knowing the long-term consequences."
There's anecdotal evidence that e-cigarettes can help smokers cut back or quit. But the devices have only gone mainstream in the past few years, and few large-scale studies have tracked their health effects or their effectiveness as a cessation aid.
Some doctors, however, are cautiously optimistic that those health consequences, whatever they may be, aren't as serious as those associated with tobacco. Gilbert Ross is one of those doctors, and his objection is a simple one: Smoking kills a lot of people, and e-cigarettes might help some people quit smoking. He sees the attempt to tax vaping as little more than a play for revenue.
"These politicians that are seeking to tax e-cigarettes are posing it as a public-health issue," Ross argues. "But it's not a public-health issue. They're trying to tax e-cigarettes to get money, and they're propping up their budgets on the backs of dead smokers."
Ross's presence at the rally did represent an element of the group's not-quite-what-it-seems approach. He's the medical director of the American Council on Science and Health, an industry-funded group that some allege simply does the bidding of its corporate donors. It opposed then-mayor Michael Bloomberg's ban on large sodas while receiving funding from soft-drink manufacturers, as Mother Jones reported, and it downplayed the health risks of fracking while accepting funds from companies that frack.
In recent years the group has received funding from e-cigarette manufacturers, as well — a fact Ross readily admits when the question is asked. He argues that the money doesn't affect his views. And his views — that e-cigarettes need more study and may offer some health benefits — echo those of plenty of independent researchers.
Ross also admits he has had his own problems in the past. He spent the year 1996 in federal prison for his role in a Medicaid fraud case in New York, as Mother Jones detailed in 2005; federal prosecutors said he'd lent his name and credentials to sham medical clinics that rang up more than $8 million in Medicaid fees. The state also revoked his license to practice medicine. He was reinstated in 2001, according to a statement from ACSH president Elizabeth M. Whelan.
Ross contends that his decades-old conviction is a distraction from the matter at hand. "I would hate to have my personal issues, dating from seven weeks in 1991, distract your readers from the most important public health issue we face: fighting the scourge of smoking," he wrote to the Voice in an email following the February 26 rally. "That would be a major disservice by every possible perspective."
The tax proposals are currently in the state legislature, and neither has so far been scheduled for a vote.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.