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Mixed messages on harm reduction and tax are not the worst that could happen

Numerous public health experts have said the newly proposed UK tax on vaping products sent a mixed message in terms of public health. But perhaps mixed is as good as it gets, judging by recent events in Europe.

At a time when public perception of the relative harms of vaping versus smoking continues to trend downwards, multiple harm-reduction advocates have said it was irresponsible of the UK government to propose a tax on vaping products on public health grounds. They said it was misleading to call vaping a possible menace to public health because it was attracting young people and non-smoking consumers.

UK officials said the application of the first vape-specific tax there was justified in order to raise the price and reduce the appeal of vaping to those vulnerable groups.

But the argument against was that doing so was counterproductive, as it could make more smokers think vaping is harmful. And the idea that youth vaping was a problem that needed addressing was also questionable since, overall, rates of regular use were not increasing substantially, and thinking that nicotine use would die out entirely was naive. In such a case, harm-reduction experts argue, it is better for young experimenters to head straight to vaping without passing through smoking on the way.

So many were unhappy with the proposed tax for various reasons – even if it was coupled with a one-off increase on tobacco duty to keep the price gap the same. But perhaps those involved in the UK should count their blessings instead.


A ruling that nicotine use and smoking are the same?


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    A recent ruling by the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) confirmed it was OK for Germany to apply an increase to duties levied on heated tobacco sticks to bring them up to the equivalent of 80% of the tax applied to conventional cigarettes on public health grounds.

    The CJEU said that “by adapting the tax system for heated tobacco, the specific purpose of that tax is to deter consumers who are dependent on nicotine from giving up cigarettes in favour of heated tobacco … since the latter product is also harmful to health”.

    This is a somewhat surprising statement for the highest court in the EU to make. And it should be considered contentious. Not only does it equate harm from nicotine with harm from smoking, it also seems to suggest cigarette smokers should be deterred from making the switch to heated tobacco.

    Both statements are scientifically demonstrably wrong. It could be argued – as US courts have done – that it is not in the CJEU’s remit to judge scientific accuracy in cases brought before it. But if the CJEU says that justifications for an increase in the duty on heated tobacco on public health grounds are permissible, then it should ensure the science backs that up.

    And questions linger on the remaining gap in duties between the two. If heated tobacco is as harmful to health as cigarettes, why not make the public health–oriented tax the same on both? Or if heated tobacco is less harmful, has the German government determined it to be 20% less harmful? If not, is the 80% of the equivalent rate figure arbitrary?

    So for the UK perhaps a mixed message is better than an almost wholly negative message – as Germany seems to be putting forth for heated tobacco.

    – Freddie Dawson ECigIntelligence staff

    Photo: Matt Sirr

    Freddie Dawson

    Managing editor, news
    Freddie studied at King’s College, London and City University and worked for publications including The Times, The Malay Mail, PathfinderBuzz and Solar Summary before joining the ECigIntelligence team. He has extensive experience in covering fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG), manufacturing and technological innovation.