EU launches a new Attack on Smoking

Posted by Eberhard Rhein on 15/01/13

On 19th December 2012, the Commission has submitted a new piece of legislation aiming at less smoking in Europe.

Its 60 page proposal responds to

  • the 2005 “WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control”, which calls on parties to reduce tobacco use and
  • demands from member countries and the EP for better harmonisation of anti-tobacco programmes, including pictorial warnings on cigarette packs, which eight member countries have already introduced.

It focuses on pictorial deterrents on cigarette packages.

By obliging tobacco manufacturers to cover at least 75 per cent of every pack surface with pictorial warnings and texts showing the cruel health consequences the Commission hopes to deter potential young smokers from starting to smoke; 94 per cent of smokers start, indeed, before the age of 25.

Successful experience in countries like Australia, Brazil and Canada has proved the emotional effectiveness of visual deterrence.

The proposal also prohibits the sale of cigarettes and misleading advertising like “light”,“ultra-light”, or “low-tar”.

The Commission proposal has provoked an exceptionally high public interest. The forthcoming debates in the EP and the Council therefore promise to attract an unusual amount of attention, which should be positive for the 2014 parliamentary elections.

Every EU citizen has a view on smoking. But few are aware of the colossal costs that smoking causes to human health and society.

Smoking is the single most important cause of premature deaths; some 700 000 EU citizens die every year prematurely from smoking. The estimated costs arising from medical treatment and sick leave due to smoking exceed € 100 billion annually, roughly the size of EU annual budget expenditures!

Receipts from tobacco taxation compensate no more than one third of these costs, though the minimum EU excise tax will be raised to 60 per cent of the weighted retail price in 2014.

Member states with high smoking prevalence and fragile public finances should dare to raise excise taxation of cigarettes beyond the minimum level, say to 100 per cent of retail prices, and ignore the risks of some more smuggling.

Average smoking prevalence has fallen considerably since the beginning of the century.; but in early 2012 it was still 28 per cent of the adult population, with big differences within the EU, Sweden being the least addicted with only 13 per cent of smokers, Greece, Bulgaria and Latvia reaching smoking rates of 36-40 per cent.

The Commission initiative is therefore more than justified. Hopefully, legislation will be adopted before the end of the present legislature in May 2014, despite massive lobbying from the tobacco industry. The directive could thus enter into force in all member states by 2016.

The EU still has a long way to go on the arduous path towards a smoke-free society! But the new Commission proposal might be an important step towards that goal.

Eberhard Rhein, Brussels

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