Chicago will be on the leading edge of efforts to reduce e-cigarette usage if a mayoral proposal to toughen the city’s laws passes.

A City Council committee will consider a proposal Thursday that would roughly double the tax on e-cigarettes and require the devices and related products be sold from behind store counters.

The policy, introduced by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, is designed to reduce the use of e-cigarettes among young people.

Officials with the Chicago Department of Health were joined at a press conference Wednesday to discuss the new tax by Chicago Public Schools Chief Health Officer Kenneth Fox and public health advocates who supported the change.

Chicago’s existing taxes —— 80 cents per vaping device or container and 55 cents per milliliter of liquid nicotine — were already some of the highest in the country, according to a review of state and local laws by the Tax Foundation in March. Under the proposed ordinance, the tax would go up to $1.50 per device and $1.20 per milliliter.

Public health researchers and policy-makers have struggled over how to regulate e-cigarettes,  which work by heating liquid mixtures that often contain highly-addictive nicotine. The Surgeon General has warned against their use by young people, though some experts hope they may prove less dangerous than conventional cigarettes.

Increased taxes on conventional cigarettes have led to reduced sales of tobacco, and it makes sense to expect a similar dynamic to play out with e-cigarettes, Ball State economist Erik Nesson said. That leaves the question of whether pricier e-cigarettes might push people toward even more unhealthy conventional cigarettes.

“I think this is definitely a concern!” Nesson wrote in an email. “We don’t have a definitive answer on what the health effects of restrictions on e-cigarette use, through bans on their use in certain areas or through tax increases, might be.”

But the danger e-cigarettes pose to children made the decision easy, Chicago Department of Public Health director Julie Morita said at the press conference.

“The evidence is anything but clear in terms of the value of the products in terms of helping adults cease the use of tobacco. We’re not willing to sacrifice the future of our children for the potential that these products might help adults give up the habit,” Morita said.

The department had been careful not to set the price so high that children take up conventional cigarettes instead, Morita said.

Matt Maloney, the director of health policy at the Chicago-based Respiratory Health Association, which supports Emanuel’s proposal, rejected the idea that the tax could backfire. In part Maloney said, a strong regime of taxes and regulations around conventional cigarettes in Chicago meant they would still be unattractive alternatives.

“It’s a reminder that the city and the state have made great strides in terms of reducing tobacco use,” Maloney said. Unless action is taken, Maloney added, the growing use of e-cigarettes threatened to eat away at those gains.

In addition to its existing taxes on e-cigarettes passed in 2016, the city has taken other measures to discourage vaping, including requiring warning signs in stores selling the products. An ordinance introduced in June by Ald. Edward Burke (14th) would have banned all flavored e-cigarette products.

Other jurisdictions and the federal government are also wrestling with the issue. The federal Food and Drug Administration warned manufacturers that they would ban flavored e-cigarettes if they did not reduce their appeal to underage smokers in early September. U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., introduced legislation in July that would curtail the sale of kid-friendly flavors nationally.

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