EU elections may shift policy focus onto harm reduction, says tobacco group rep

With the European Parliament elections looming, tobacco harm-reduction issues – which have so far seen a lack of emphasis in mainstream politics – could play an important role and contribute to potential shifts in policy focus, despite the complexity of political stances across parties. That’s the opinion of Frank Henkler-Stephani (pictured), senior director of tobacco harm reduction at the German Association of the Tobacco Industry and New Products (Bundesverband der Tabakwirtschaft und neuartiger Erzeugnisse, BVTE).

“Possibly, a shift to the centre-right puts question marks on some extensive European legislations,” he said. “It could also limit the influence of certain NGOs (non-governmental organisations) that push for a nicotine endgame. However, nothing is certain, since both support and rejection of tobacco harm reduction is found in all political parties.”

During an interview with ECigIntelligence, Henkler-Stephani offered a nuanced perspective on the regulation and perception of alternative tobacco products within the European Union, shedding light on the challenges policy-makers face in balancing public health concerns with harm-reduction strategies and highlighting the importance of evidence-based regulations that prioritise harm reduction while navigating political pressures and stakeholder dynamics.

Referencing the Cochrane Review of 2022, he highlights the evidence suggesting the efficacy of alternatives over conventional nicotine replacements but also underscores the need for these products to be viewed primarily as consumer goods offering less hazardous alternatives to traditional smoking. However, while advocating for legal accessibility of alternative tobacco products for adults, he calls for regulation to be focused on quality standards and health-risk prevention.

 

Flavour bans take ‘the wrong approach’

 

He also warns against overly restrictive measures, such as flavour bans, which could hinder harm-reduction efforts and limit consumer acceptance.

“Vapers who understand regulation as a matter in their interest will be motivated to avoid black or grey market products,” he said. “However, current proposals to restrict adult vapers to limited flavours are rightly perceived as invasive and rejected. Unfortunately, politicians are increasingly pressured to fight nicotine on principle and use their regulatory powers as political instruments.”

By rejecting blanket flavour bans, Henkler-Stephani advocates instead for discussions with regulators to find more nuanced approaches and argues against prohibiting individual flavour components, suggesting that such measures may unnecessarily restrict consumer choice without effectively addressing youth uptake.

“Prohibition of individual flavour components is the wrong approach,” he argued. “These compounds are like colours that are used to draw a wide range of very diverse paintings. Will adults voluntarily restrict themselves to dull and grey pictures, because children might want to see them? This is unlikely, as long as menthol, vanillin, limonene and hundreds of other aroma compounds are widely available for many other applications.”

Henkler-Stephani acknowledges existing restrictions on advertising alternative tobacco products in some countries but emphasises the need for balanced information dissemination. Undoubtedly, the protection of minors is a major concern for all stakeholders, requiring strong enforcement of sales restrictions for under-age people, and he suggests these efforts could be supported by avoidance of product design features, branding or presentations that might be appealing to children.

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    Ensuring consistency across EU member states

     

    According to Henkler-Stephani, another crucial challenge that the new European Parliament could face concerns ensuring consistency across EU member states, which requires a broad consensus on harm reduction. He criticises the Dutch approach of banning most flavours, warning against imposing such restrictive policies uniformly across Europe.

    “I doubt that the Dutch approach to ban most flavours should be consistently implemented across Europe,” he said, “however, the Netherlands will defend their supposed achievements in tobacco control, even if much of the tobacco and nicotine trade shifted to neighbouring countries.”

    Henkler-Stephani believes the European legislation could be probably pushed by member states that have adopted restrictive rules, trying to enforce them as general standard across Europe, but he seems optimistic that these positions are likely to meet growing resistance from other member states, in Parliament, and by the public.

     

    Exclusion of industry voices and expertise

     

    Echoing what has been expressed by other stakeholders in recent interviews, Henkler-Stephani highlights a lack of engagement between policy-makers and industry representatives, suggesting a disconnect between regulatory decisions and technical expertise. He criticises the exclusion of industry voices from policy discussions, noting the dominance of anti-nicotine activists in shaping agendas.

    Questioning the relevance of the World Health Organization (WHO)’s stance on alternative tobacco products when it comes to formulating EU policies – particularly in light of its calls for e-cigarette bans – Henkler-Stephani suggests its position may not align with harm-reduction goals in the EU. “The WHO is no serious player as long as recommendations to ban e-cigarettes are maintained,” he concluded.

    Around 370m Europeans will be called to the polls in June to elect the 720 members of the next European Parliament. The outcome – which is still unpredictable – could impact the future of alternatives and reshape the narrative around harm-reduction strategies, mainly focusing on vaping, heated tobacco products, nicotine pouches and other safer alternatives to smoking. A milder approach to alternatives to traditional cigarettes is likely, as it seems that right-wing/centrist groups, such as the European People’s Party Group (EPP), European Conservatives and Reformists Group (ECR), and Identity and Democracy Group (ID), are polling well – which are the groups that traditionally are less likely to support strict regulations.

    – Antonia Di Lorenzo ECigIntelligence staff

    Antonia Di Lorenzo

    Assistant news editor/senior reporter
    Antonia is a member of the editorial team and holds a masters degree in Law from the University of Naples Federico II, Italy. She moved in 2013 to London, where she completed a postgraduate course at the London School of Journalism. In the UK, she worked as a news reporter for a financial newswire and a magazine before moving to Barcelona in 2019.

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