Across Europe, science is giving way to paternalism. Policymaking around tobacco products is becoming less grounded in fact and more driven by ideology, which is harming smokers. By embracing interventionism on lifestyle issues like smoking, European governments risk leaving entire populations poorer and less healthy, all thanks to avoidable policy pitfalls.
New research shines an unforgiving light on the damage un-scientific policy is causing. The Nanny State Index (1) is a comprehensive report chronicling European countries’ approach to lifestyle regulation. The trend is worrying: European governments are embracing nanny statism. From advertising bans to packaging restrictions, from sin taxes to outright sales bans, politicians across Europe are opting to forego consumer freedom and instead centralise public health decisions in the hands of the state.
The science is clear: vaping is much healthier than smoking. Vapes contain a fraction of the toxins of traditional cigarettes and are around 200 times less likely to cause cancer as a result. Burning a cigarette releases thousands of poisonous chemicals; around 70 of them cause cancer and many lead to other serious health problems like strokes, heart disease and lung disease (2).
Vapes, on the other hand, do not include carbon monoxide or tar, two of the most harmful toxins in cigarettes, and also do not contain the vast majority of the other harmful chemicals found in traditional cigarettes, which leads to a much lower risk of health complications from vaping (3). Overall, electronic cigarettes (vapes) are around 95% safer than traditional ones (4).
Crucially, they are the most effective tool we have for helping smokers quit. Research has revealed that when smokers use e-cigarettes in order to quit, they succeed in 74% of cases (5). That is a much higher success rate than nicotine pouches, going cold turkey, or any other widely used method (6). Smokers ditching cigarettes for vapes, then, is the best way to drastically reduce their health risk from smoking.
Sadly, the Nanny State Index discovers that most governments in Europe seem intent on introducing policies designed to make accessing vaping more difficult or less attractive. That flies in the face of the science and hangs smokers out to dry. It leaves the many smokers who want to quit (more than 50%, according to surveys (7)) in the grip of their tobacco addiction with no way out.
One of the few bright spots in the Nanny State Index report – an exception to the trend of unscientific policymaking – is Italy, where tax on e-liquids (used to fill up vapes) has been reduced from €0.175 per ml to €0.13 per ml (8). This is a small change, but it could have a substantial impact. With Europe in the grip of an inflationary crisis and many struggling with the cost of living, small changes in cost can have a big impact on the decisions people making when they choose which products to buy.
A tax on e-liquids, like Italy has, is a way for the government to artificially inflate the price of the product to discourage people from buying it. That means cutting it, as the Italian government has done, allows the price to dip a little lower. For some consumers, that could make all the difference in the affordability of vaping.
By lowering the tax, the government makes it marginally more attractive and accessible for smokers – of which Italy has 12.4 million, almost a quarter of the population (9) – to switch to vaping. If they do, their health will improve considerably. As a side-effect, they will probably consume fewer healthcare resources, which will almost certainly outweigh the cost of the lost tax revenue for the government.
Anything politicians can do to get the government out of the way and reduce the obstacles for smokers to take up vaping – even something as simple as reducing the tax on e-liquids – will have a positive impact on public health. Unfortunately, not many governments in Europe share the Italian approach. Even then, Italy’s drop in e-liquid tax is a small change.
To have a substantial impact, governments should be enthusiastically promoting accessible ways for smokers to improve their health – not just reducing obstacles, like e-liquid taxes, which they created. A concerted education and information campaign could have a huge impact on public health for little cost by simply raising awareness among smokers about how much their health could improve by making this simple change, which doesn’t even necessitate giving up nicotine. It’s hard to think of an easier, more efficient big win for public health policy than this.
Ultimately, politicians want a healthier, smoke-free Europe. The problem, as the Nanny State Index shows, is that European governments seem so obsessed with pursuing ‘purity’ in public health policy that they are not content with smokers giving up cigarettes. They seem to want vaping eradicated too – not to mention alcohol, gambling, sugar, and more.
That’s a slippery slope of nanny statism which will make us all poorer and result in much less consumer choice for everyone, thriving illicit markets and, crucially, worse public health outcomes. Instead, governments should embrace realistic solutions which allow people to improve their health, like switching from smoking to vaping. To find those solutions, they will have to stop ideological purity from clouding their policy decisions and instead allow science to inform policy.
Further reading on Europeanscientist