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    The European Commission just buried its own smoking data. Why?

    Peter Beckett
    Peter Beckett
    July 2, 2024
    4 min read
    Download Source FilesDownload Source Files

    If you weren’t paying close attention, you’ll probably have missed the release on Monday (24th June) of the latest EU survey on tobacco and nicotine use. And that suits the European Commission just fine.

    Why? Because three days earlier, Europe’s health Ministers had debated tobacco and nicotine policy at the behest, ostensibly, of the Danes and the Latvians (though those of us who have been around the EU a long time suspect the Commission had a hand in initiating the debate.)

    Ministers lined up to call for more restrictions on safer nicotine products, which is the policy preference of the Commission, while barely mentioning cigarettes, which are highly dangerous nicotine products that kill you.  

    And just three days later, the Commission’s own survey contradicted most of their assumptions.

    Of course, the Commission could have brought the report out ahead of the debate in Council. If the report, which runs to hundreds of pages, was ready on Monday morning, it was certainly ready on Friday afternoon. But then the debate would have had to reflect its findings.

    When the report did come out, the Commission’s health department, DG SANTE, or the report’s authors, Eurobarometer themselves, could have tweeted about it. They didn’t - although the latter did tweet about another survey, released the same day, which looked at attitudes to trade policy. There was not even a cursory press release.

    It does start to look as though they wanted to bury Eurobarometer’s findings. Which is unsurprising.

    The report found that smoking prevalence across the 27 Member bloc fell by just a single percentage point – from 25% to 24% - since the last such survey in 2020. It has only fallen by three percent since Europe’s current nicotine and tobacco rulebook came into force in 2016.

    At this rate - as we reported on Clearing the Air - the EU will miss its “Smoke Free Generation” target of a smoking prevalence of less than 5% by 70 years.

    However, some countries have seen notable successes. Czechia stands out here: they saw a 7 percentage point decrease in smoking from the 2020 edition to the 2024 edition.

    What are they doing differently?

    Their government has laws that are friendly towards safer nicotine policy: the UK’s Institute for Economic Affairs places it second last in its “Nanny State Index” which ranks countries based in part on their openness to safer nicotine products. Last is a good place to be in this set of rankings, and the only place with a more liberal policy towards vaping is the UK.

    Sweden maintains the lowest smoking rate in Europe, which, as has been proven time and time again, is because in Sweden, people use oral tobacco rather than cigarettes. This might have happened elsewhere too, had the EU not banned oral tobacco everywhere else 30 years ago.

    Most non-smokers simply aren’t interested in nicotine products. Over 90% don’t find any of the three major categories of safer nicotine products appealing, those being pouches (94% unappealing), heated tobacco (93%) and vaping (92%). So much for needing to protect non-smokers from predatory marketing.

    This doesn’t fit the Commission’s narrative on safer nicotine, which has been made clear in report after report over the last five years. The people the Commission chose to author those reports on its behalf make this bias abundantly clear.

    Their chosen scribes - the European Network on Smoking Prevention and Vital Strategies - were publicly campaigning for flavour bans for safer nicotine products when the Commission asked them to look into whether the EU should ban flavours in safer nicotine products. This was first pointed out by MEPs back in April and is now the subject of an investigation by the European Ombudsman.

    I understand from sources close to that investigation that the Commission and the European Ombudsman met last week (Friday, 26th June 2024) to “inspect certain documents in the Commission’s file” and “clarify the matter”. Sounds like something didn’t add up.

    So how would the Commission cover up a conflict between its own findings and its preferred policy position? There have been some desperate attempts.

    One was to ask non-smokers whether safer nicotine products should be regulated as strictly as cigarettes. Apparently, 59% thought they should.

    So what?

    It’s not their lives which stand to be markedly improved by switching to vapes, heated tobacco or pouches. So why is their view relevant to making policy for those people who do stand to benefit? It’s about as much use as asking your pet rabbit what kind of food your dog might like for dinner.

    The corresponding numbers for smokers and users of safer nicotine products is, unsurprisingly, omitted from the report at this stage. We will have to wait for the raw data to figure that one out and we’re very much looking forward to it.

    But they did ask both smokers and non-smokers whether they’d support a flavour ban – the likely flagship policy prescription - and found respondents more or less evenly divided, with around four in ten supporting a ban and a similar number opposing one. Hardly a ringing endorsement.

    And here’s my favourite attempt to justify the unjustifiable:

    “Despite the use of e-cigarettes and heated tobacco products in attempts to quit smoking, the majority of non-smokers are sceptical about their effectiveness. While a small fraction believes in their potential to assist in smoking cessation, their number pales in comparison to the majority that don’t hold this view.”

    Here we have a survey which found that vaping and heated tobacco helped more than half of those surveyed cut down or quit, and it concludes, not with their lived experience, but with what other people, who are not in any way affected by the issue, think their lived experience should be.  

    The Commission’s message is simple:  “Sorry, this product may have helped you, but we don’t think it’s effective despite our own data telling us the opposite”.

    Such contortions, however strained, can’t hide the numbers; and so presumably the decision was taken to hold the report over to the Monday, when the media will have had their fix of nicotine policy (pun intended) with Ministers on the Friday, leading to Eurobarometer not getting any coverage. Friday tends to be a slow day for EU news, meaning that the call from Ministers to “crack down” would get top billing, whereas Monday is usually a pretty stacked media day, meaning the Eurobarometer report would get little to nothing.

    The plan worked.

    Politico and EurActiv – the two major media outlets which serve the “Brussels bubble” – both waxed lyrical about Member States wanting more restrictions on the Friday, and precisely none of them covered Eurobarometer’s data on the Monday. Someone in the Commission’s communications team deserves a promotion.

    So what have we learned from this whole sorry episode? The fight for safer nicotine products isn’t about data, at least at this stage and at least in the mind of the European Commission and some European governments. It’s about politics.

    The results of the forthcoming review of Europe’s tobacco rulebook, which will kick off next year, will be determined by politics not data. The Commission’s health department has clearly made its mind up, but governments, the European Parliament and the political overlords at the Commission remain in play. They are political by design, and they’ll be convinced not by the science, but in the court of public opinion.

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