This month, the British Columbia Health Minister announced plans to introduce legislation that will increase the BC’s provincial tax on vaping products from 7% to 20%. In doing so, BC will become the first province to tax e-cigarettes and vaping.
In all other provinces, vaping demonstrates an interesting inconsistency in some provincial legislation: under some provincial public health legislation vaping is regulated like other tobacco use yet under provincial tax legislation vaping is not treated like tobacco and is only subject to either the provincial HST component or provincial sales tax. Thus, vaping actually provides a much more tax-effective way for a user to get a nicotine fix. Put otherwise, vaping is essentially subsidized nicotine consumption.
Vaping involves the use of a handheld electronic device that heats an “e-liquid”—sometimes called e-substance, e-oil, or e-juice—to a point where it becomes an inhalable vapour.
The e-liquid is typically composed of nicotine, a carrier substance such as glycerine, and flavouring. E-cigarettes and e-liquid are tobacco-free. Most Canadian provinces (Alberta and Saskatchewan are exceptions) have public health legislation that regulates the use of e-cigarettes in a manner that parallels the regulation of cigarettes and other tobacco products.
For example, Ontario’s Smoke-Free Ontario Act, 2017 regulates the sale, advertisement, packaging, and consumption of e-cigarettes, in some ways reproducing restrictions on tobacco use.
In Canada, both federal and provincial governments exercise jurisdiction over health. This dual jurisdiction explains why there are two layers of tobacco legislation: the provincial laws noted above and the federal Tobacco and Vaping Products Act (SC 1997, c. 13), which governs public health aspects of tobacco and vape consumption in Canada.
Although provincial public health legislation regulates e-cigarettes as it does tobacco cigarettes, provincial tax legislation does not. In all 10 provinces, tobacco sales are taxed under special tobacco tax legislation, and in most provinces tobacco sales are also subject to GST/HST. For example, in Ontario a pack of 20 cigarettes is subject to a tobacco tax of $3.30 and an additional 13 percent HST. However, vaping liquid, or e-liquid, does not come within the scope of tobacco tax legislation, which is limited to tobacco products. As a result without new legislation, vape products escape the additional taxed levied on tobacco products.
As explained above, e-cigarettes and e-liquid are tobacco-free, and while the nicotine in e-liquid may give smokers a sensation similar to that of a traditional cigarette, the nicotine is not a tobacco product. As a result, while sales of e-cigarettes and e-liquid are subject to GST/HST, they are not subject to a special tobacco tax.
This means that now as more Canadians have shifted from traditional smoking to vaping, they are escaping the financial burden of tobacco taxation. In turn, this means that provinces are losing their tobacco tax base. However, it is estimated that BC’s new legislation will generate roughly $10 million a year in new tax revenue. We won’t be surprised to see other provinces follow BC’s lead.