An overwhelming majority of EU citizens who responded to a European Commission initiative say they support tobacco harm reduction products.
The Commission’s “Call for Evidence” on the legislative framework for tobacco control received an unprecedented level of feedback, with consumers of alternatives to tobacco products – vaping, heated tobacco and oral nicotine pouches – making their voices heard in huge numbers.
More than 24,000 EU citizens responded to the call, launched by the Commission as part of its ongoing evaluation of what future EU tobacco laws will look like through revision of the Tobacco Products Directive.
The massive interest in the issue may surprise some and may put the European Commission on the back foot as has been seen by some as having previously failed to support ‘tobacco harm reduction’.
The 4-week public consultation, from 20 May to 17 June, had one of the biggest ever responses to a consultation. On average, calls of this length receive around 354 submissions. In recent years, only the “call for evidence” for a digital euro for Europe received a similar scale of a response, but still fell short of the 20,000 submission mark despite taking place over a longer period of time (10 weeks).
Of the 24.000 submissions, more than 90% came from individual EU citizens, suggesting the extent to which this issue is a priority for the European public at large. Many submissions came from citizens in Germany, Italy and Romania.
It showed that the biggest issue for citizens across all member states is the regulation of reduced-risk products such as e-cigarettes. On this, it has been argued that the Commission it out of sync with public opinion.
The Commission has favoured the introduction of new restrictions on reduced risk products, including flavour bans and sale restrictions but some in the industry hope the public response could now force it to reconsider these plans.
In June, the Commission announced plans to prohibit the sale of flavoured heated tobacco products in the EU. The proposal came, it said, in response to the “significant increase” in the volumes of heated tobacco products sold across the EU.
A Commission report showed a 10% pick up in the sales volumes of heated tobacco products in more than five Member States and overall in the EU, heated tobacco products exceeded 2.5 % of total sales of tobacco products.
An overwhelming majority of submissions supported tobacco harm reduction products, including vaping and nicotine pouches, as “critical tools” that have helped smokers to quit. Respondents were nearly unanimous in opposing any plans to restrict access to such products for adults over the age of 18.
The submissions call for “sensible regulation” in order not to restrict the harm reduction potential of such products. Consumers also highlighted the role flavours played in their successful switch away from traditional cigarettes, urging the Commission not to limit their availability.
In its submission, the vaping activist group World Vapers’ Alliance said, “Over the years, we’ve seen millions of people quit smoking with vapes and 19 million more lives can be saved in Europe with progressive vaping regulations. This is why vaping must not be treated like smoking. Any approach other than harm reduction will be a significant setback in the fight against smoking-induced illnesses.”
Elsewhere, the European Tobacco Harm Reduction Advocates group said: “Harm reduction is a major public health strategy that will ultimately render cigarettes mostly obsolete. It will ultimately end the epidemic of smoking-related diseases that still kills 700,000 in the European Union.”
The Spanish Association of Personal Vaporizer Users (ANESVAP) noted: “Reduced-risk nicotine products, which are emerging products based on technology to free nicotine from combustion – which is what causes the damage – should not be feared or viewed with concern, quite the contrary. They should be seen as a reduced risk alternative – they are 95% safer – to smoked tobacco.”
More than 500 submissions, or approximately 2% of the overall responses, came from the Czech Republic, a country which is seen as a continental leader in the adoption of harm reduction policies to date, and which has just taken over the reins of the Council Presidency.
The Czech Republic based Harm Reduction Academy, said in their submission to the call: “In Czechia, there are about 2 million adult smokers. However, while 30% of smokers try to quit smoking every year, less than 1 % manage to stop for good. Our experts do believe that access to a less harmful alternative to tobacco and nicotine products can help those who are addicted to cease smoking. Hence, offering lower-risk products is part of our therapeutic approach.”
For a Commission that has long been accused of ideological opposition to harm reduction products, the results could be seen as problematic.
In 2020, the Commission mandated the Scientific Committee on Health, Environmental and Emerging Risks to compile a report on e-cigarettes but was criticised for what some said was its “biased weighting” of the evidence against vaping.
The Commission asked SCHEER to analyse e-cigarettes “in a vacuum” without any comparison with smoking tobacco. The report, critics alleged, seemed designed to ignore the harm reduction capability of vaping.
The European Parliament, though, is said to have shown it is more responsive to citizens and, in its ‘Beating Cancer’ report last year, was the first EU institution to officially acknowledge the potential of vaping in smoking cessation. Parliament said it considers that electronic cigarettes could allow some smokers to progressively quit smoking.
Further comment comes from Michael Landl, Director of the World Vapers’ Alliance, who said. “DG SANTE, as part of the European Commission, should aim to educate the public about risk, yet in this case, it is the public that is doing the educating and the Commission which seems inexplicably reluctant to take on board their life saving message.
“Vaping is 95% less harmful than smoking and could help the European Commission reach its goal of a tobacco-free generation by 2040. For Europe, which still has 12 times as many smokers as vapers, vaping could make cigarettes obsolete within a generation if properly embraced by public bodies” Landl continued.
He and others say it will be interesting to see how the Commission and DG Sante respond to the consultation. Thousands of vapers and tobacco harm reduction advocates are eagerly awaiting a response and say they are “ready to hold them to account if their voices are ignored.”
Stella Kyriakides, EU Commissioner for Health and Food Safety, strongly defends the commission’s plans to prohibit flavoured heated tobacco products saying: “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.
“Stronger actions to reduce tobacco consumption, stricter enforcement and keeping pace with new developments to address the endless flow of new products entering the market – particularly important to protect younger people – is key for this. Prevention will always be better than cure.”
The Commission’s proposal will be scrutinised by member states and the European Parliament. It will enter into force 20 days after the publication in the Official Journal and member states will have eight months to transpose the directive into national law.