George Pyle: Whether it’s a vape pen or an oil refinery, for-profit can mean pro-poison

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) E Liquid for sale at Peak Vapor in Taylorsville. Gov. Gary Herbert has proposed taxing e-cigarettes the same as other tobacco products. Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2018

Understand what a vape pen is for. It exists to infuse a user’s lungs with nicotine, a highly addictive chemical. That is its one and only purpose.

Understand what a vape pen manufacturer is for. It exists to infuse its own bank account with the money of its customers. That is its one and only purpose.

And it is the same purpose of the vast majority of for-profit operations. You can tell because they are called, quite openly and without shame, for-profit. Not for-product or for-pleasure or for-service or for-customer or for-dinner. For-profit.

Rocky Mountain Power does not exist to generate electricity, nor the HollyFrontier refinery to distill gasoline, nor Merit Medical to make the machines that go “Ping!” Each of them exists to make a profit for its owners. The current, the fuel and the beepy contraptions are a means to an end. And that end is taking money out of your pocket and putting it in theirs.

What’s wrong with that? Not a durn thing. As long as we all understand what is happening. And don’t fall into the trap of pretending that businesses large and small are doing us a favor by marketing their wares, and that we somehow owe them anything other than fair payment for whatever goods or services we might choose to buy.

And whether we are dealing with a vape pen or an oil refinery, the role of government and of the larger civil society is to put a thumb on the scale so that the free-market search for profit does not leave too much destruction in its wake.

Even though it is not true in the case of most individual businesses or managers, the presumption of every elected official, every regulatory agency, every public service organization, every customer and every voter must be that a corporation that can make more profit by poisoning its customers or its neighbors than it can by not poisoning its customers and its neighbors will, quite deliberately, poison its customers and its neighbors.

That is because the corporation exists to make profit, the more the better. If it has an attack of conscience and deliberately lowers its revenue by choosing not to poison its customers and its neighbors, it has failed in its purpose and its duty to its managers, boards of director and stockholders.

Of course there are managers at all levels, in corporations of all sizes, who have enough empathy to behave with more humanity. And there are others who see that there is no long-term benefit to be gained by killing the customers. Inventors, craftsmen, engineers, designers and others are motivated as much by their desire to create as to make money.

But there are others still — the very existence of the tobacco industry is proof beyond a reasonable doubt — who will change their behavior only when they have reason to believe that some arm of some government will fine or otherwise penalize a company that sells or emits poison to the point that its profit margin is significantly reduced. Then, and only then, will they change their behavior.

This figures into the suggestion from Gov. Gary Herbert that the state begin to tax vaping paraphernalia at the same 86 percent rate as the state taxes tobacco products — cigarettes and pipe and chewing tobacco.

The idea is partly to broaden the state’s tax base, which Herbert is generally in favor of, and partly to try to slow the rapid growth of vaping by teenagers by raising the cost of the pens, cartridges, liquids and other bits and pieces offered by an industry that, despite the grain of truth about it offering a less-destructive alternative to traditional cigarettes, shows absolutely no reluctance about hooking more generations of children on its products.

In theory, vaping is a do-less-harm idea. For someone — presumably an adult — who is already hooked on Camels, shifting over to vapes can indeed be an improvement. The nicotine-delivery system offered may contain little to none of the other poisonous stuff that is imparted into people’s lungs and bloodstreams by tobacco — the tars, hydrogen cyanide, arsenic and the like.

Or it may not, given that nobody is regulating the stuff. And, clearly, the vape industry’s trend toward flavored offerings can be nothing but proof that it is out to draw in younger customers, customers for whom e-cigarettes are their first — but not their last — exposure to nicotine.

Taxing the stupid things at a higher rate is the least we can do.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Tribune staff. George Pyle.

George Pyle, editorial page editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, has been many things, but he was never a profit center. gpyle@sltrib.com

Twitter, @debatestate