EU’s tobacco epidemic exacerbated by Brussels’ short-sightedness

Experts at the World Health Organization (WHO) say they are cautiously optimistic that the “acute phase” of the interminable COVID-19 pandemic could be over by July 2022, based on rising vaccination rates and global immunity levels. At the same time, however, it is increasingly clear that the pandemic has exacerbated other existing public health issues.

Specifically, rates of alcohol consumption and smoking have increased in many places around the world. In the US, the first year of Covid restrictions saw an increase in cigarette consumption for the first time in two decades, with more than 203 billion cigarettes sold in 2020. Calls to quit-smoking hotlines were down 27 percent, and a quarter of smokers reported smoking more than usual on account of pandemic stress levels.

A similar story is playing out across the world. In England alone, a 25 percent rise in young adult smokers saw more than 650,000 young people pick up the deadly habit in the first national lockdown. In France, nearly 27% of current smokers reported increased tobacco use since the first lockdown in spring 2020, while in Germany the percentage of the over-14 population who smoke has increased since the end of 2019. As adults light up in growing numbers, meanwhile, children everywhere have now been exposed to higher amounts of second-hand smoke in the home, all with devastating consequences to public health.

These findings only underscore the urgency with which Europe needs to tackle its tobacco problem. The European Commission has codified its plan for a “tobacco-free generation” in its Beating Cancer Plan, setting a goal that less than five percent of the European population will use tobacco by 2040. Achieving this target, however, will necessitate a rather sharp drop in tobacco use: some 23% of EU citizens use tobacco today.

As a result, tobacco use remains Europe’s leading preventable mortality risk factor. Smokers face battles with a well-documented swath of health effects, including cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease, cancers and other communicable diseases. Even smokers who consume only a few cigarettes every day face considerably higher health risks than non-smokers, pointing to the urgent need to help European smokers kick the habit.

While the EU has implemented some tobacco control measures to cut smoking rates, there was a consensus even before the pandemic that current efforts are insufficient to curb smoking across the bloc in any meaningful way. According to some pundits, one major roadblock is the tobacco industry’s lingering power to influence tobacco policy in the EU.

Earlier this month, EU Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly launched an inquiry to investigate whether or not the European Commission complies with existing tobacco lobbying transparency obligations. One major concern, says O’Reilly, is that the Commission has yet to proactively make public the majority of meetings that take place between tobacco industry representatives and policymakers. “This practice does not facilitate full public scrutiny of the Commission’s interaction with the tobacco industry,” O’Reilly warned in a letter to Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

Getting serious about eliminating undue tobacco industry influence, as well as stepping up the enforcement and harmonization of current tobacco control measures, will prove indispensable if Europe is ever going to kick its tobacco habit.

Given the scale of the tobacco crisis on the continent, European policymakers need to also look at harm reduction approaches which have proved effective in reducing smoking rates in other countries. Public Health England (PHE), for example, has been tirelessly educating British smokers about the substantially lower risks posed by vaping compared to smoking, to the extent that England could soon be the first country in the world to prescribe e-cigarettes to help smokers quit for good.

“We need to reassure smokers that switching to an e-cigarette would be much less harmful than smoking,” emphasized Professor John Newton, director of health improvement at PHE. “It would be tragic if thousands of smokers who could quit with the help of an e-cigarette are being put off due to false fears about safety.”

Instead of following this common-sense outlook which has helped the UK sharply reduce its smoking rates, Europe has taken an overly cautious approach to alternative nicotine products such as e-cigarettes. The text adopted in December by the European Parliament’s Special Committee on Beating Cancer (BECA), which will shortly be the subject of a plenary vote, encouragingly recognises e-cigarettes’ potential to help smokers kick the habit, but worryingly floated the possibility of restrictions on flavoured e-liquids.

In fact, some European countries have already implemented or proposed such regulations which would discourage smokers from switching to vaping, such as the Netherlands’ proposed e-liquid flavour ban set to take effect in mid-2022 despite staunch opposition from the public and health experts alike.

According to the Dutch government, the reasoning behind the vaping flavour ban stems from concerns that vaping might serve as a “gateway” to a lifelong cigarette habit for young people. If this is the case, authorities risk shooting themselves in the foot: a similar flavour ban in San Francisco actually doubled high school students’ chances of picking up a conventional cigarette. Adult smokers, meanwhile, have been shown to be significantly less likely to quit smoking if they are restricted to only tobacco-flavoured e-cigarettes, meaning that the flavour bans favoured by some European policymakers could seriously stymy progress on curbing smoking rates.

Europe’s short-sightedness on harm reduction threatens to further exacerbate Europe’s escalating tobacco epidemic. With the pandemic driving many people to smoke more or to pick up the habit in the first place, it’s high time that Brussels acts more aggressively on tobacco control and uses all the tools in its arsenal to drive smoking rates down.


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