The European Commission has moved forward with its proposal to implement a flavour ban for heated tobacco products (HTPs), which we first reported in March. The proposal will undergo a period of scrutiny by the Council and the European Parliament and enter into force 20 days after the publication in the Official Journal.
Announcing the move, Ms Stella Kyriakides, Commissioner for Health and Food Safety, said:
“By removing flavoured heated tobacco from the market we are taking yet another step towards realising our vision under Europe's Beating Cancer Plan to create a “Tobacco Free Generation” with less than 5% of the population using tobacco by 2040. With nine out of ten lung cancers caused by tobacco we want to make smoking as unattractive as possible to protect the health of our citizens and save lives.”
The clear and obvious problem with this statement is that we know that harms from smoking are due to combustion, not simply the use of a tobacco product. To conflate the two is highly misleading.
Ms Kyriakides' statement makes no mention that heated tobacco products are far less harmful to health than combustible tobacco, nor does it mention that the overwhelming reason why EU citizens use HTPs is to quit or reduce their use of combustible tobacco. Use of HTPs is concentrated among those who smoke or who used to smoke, indeed, official EU data shows that the percentage of never smokers that use HTPs is zero. Given that the proposed flavour ban is being presented as a health-based initiative it’s difficult to understand how removing options for smokers who wish to quit smoking, or who have quit using HTPs, would improve health. In Poland alone a HTP flavour ban would impact over 600,000 consumers who use the products.
When we look closer at the reasons for the proposal we can see that it’s far from being a health-based decision, it’s actually the result of a draft Delegated Directive due to “Substantial change of circumstances.” The change of circumstances is defined as an increase of the sales volume by product category by at least 10% in at least five Member States and the sales volume of the product category at retail level exceeded 2.5% of total sales of tobacco products at Union level. To put this plainly, large numbers of smokers have improved their health by switching to a low-risk alternative and the Commission has had a knee-jerk reaction which is based on nothing more than an ideological objection to the use of a nicotine product, and an unrealistic goal of a being ‘tobacco free’ by 2040.
If the health of citizens and saving lives really is the main concern of the Commission, they need only look to Sweden to see what can be accomplished when smokers abandon combustible tobacco for a low-risk alternative. Sweden has by far the lowest smoking prevalence in the EU, thanks primarily to the use of snus, and as a result has Europe’s lowest level of tobacco-related mortality among men.
Lessons should be learned from the Swedish experience and the focus must be put back on reducing the harms from smoking. If the EU is serious about beating cancer, then smokers need to be provided with a wide range of low-risk alternatives which are accessible and appealing, options such as HTPs as well as vapes, nicotine pouches and snus. Putting up barriers to smoking cessation in the form of flavour bans protects the cigarette trade and prolongs smoking, and certainly doesn’t further the fight against cancer.