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Candidates running in this week’s election for the next European Parliament and Commission have been quiet on tobacco issues – still bruised from the contentious debates of 2013 to revise the European Tobacco Products Directive (TPD). But the rising popularity of tobacco alternatives as well as new regulations on the way will make the e-cigarette issue hard to ignore.
EU elections, taking place in all member states from 23rd to 26th May, will determine the future of the Europe and there have been many topics candidates were keen to talk about during the campaign. E-cigarettes is not one of them. None of the European parties’ manifestos includes them as a major topic.
Maybe for this reason a campaign has been recently launched in Brussels, entitled Vaping is not Tobacco. The campaign website provides a tool to make it easier for European citizens to contact their candidates running in the EU elections and ask them about their position on e-cigs.
Lobbying by vaping associations and the launch of some initiatives in Brussels have contributed in recent times to increase awareness of the subject in the EU bubble. As ECigIntelligence reported in February, a European Citizens Initiative was launched earlier this year to free e-cigarettes from regulation under the Tobacco Products Directive (TPD). Under EU rules, the European Commission must consider the request if the initiative attracts more than 1m signatures.
The issue will hit the headlines again because the Commission is about to undertake a review on how the TPD should be further revised in 2021. In addition, a proposal on whether to modify excise duties on e-cigarettes is expected later in the year.
Although Europe’s political parties have not taken a clear position on the role of e-cigarettes, most support the idea of regulation at EU level but not a prohibition.
A spokesperson for the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) said that while they support tougher regulation of tobacco and related products, the legal status of e-cigarettes is still not established. They believe vaping products should not be banned, or classified as medicinal products, which would “greatly increase their cost, limited the product choices and restrict their retail availability”.
In the revision of the TPD in 2013, the Liberals were perhaps the most vocally wary of regulation that would stifle the ability of e-cigarettes to act as a tool to quit smoking. “E-cigarettes are proven to be a great benefit to public health,” a spokesperson for the group said at the time.
Along the same lines, the European Popular Party (EPP) told ECigintelligence the centre-right was not in favour of banning the sale of any product, but “in the last revision of the tobacco products directive we were in favour of banning the selling of e-cigarettes in pharmacies and the possibility that they could be sold as a remedy or a way to quit smoking”.
A source at the party noted that the EPP candidate for the Commission presidency, Manfred Weber, had promised a master plan against cancer. The party’s expected position is probably in favour of taxing e-cigarettes, though a final decision will be taken by national finance ministers rather than the European Parliament.
Gearing up for a new push
The Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D), the party of current health commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis, told ECigIntelligence that they don’t propose a ban on e-cigarettes, “but we do need to carefully study and monitor their impact on public health”.
The party said: “E-cigarettes should remain regulated under tobacco legislation, or pharmaceutical legislation if being used as an aid to quit smoking.”
Tax policy and labelling restrictions are, according to the socialists, “very effective tools” for reducing tobacco use and that this option could be also applied to electronic cigarettes.
But whether the parties want to deal with it or not, advocates on both sides are gearing up for a new push.
“In this parliament term we had to fight a very strong feeling, and also desire, that tobacco was solved with the Tobacco Products Directive revision, and that there was no need to do anything more on product regulation,” says Anca Toma, director of the anti-tobacco NGO Smoke Free Partnership (SFP). “There is now a gap since 2014, and that’s taken a toll on their expertise and knowledge of the subject.”
Toma notes that after the coming election “everybody will be gone who has worked on tobacco until now” – except for Belgian Liberal MEP Frédérique Ries. She was the Liberal rapporteur for the TPD revision in 2014 and being high on the party’s list is likely to be re-elected.
Commission president’s power
“It’s true that vaping has fallen off the radar at EU policy level since the adoption phase of the directive,” agrees Valerio Forconi, head of EU affairs at Imperial Tobacco. “But a great deal has happened in the category since that time.”
Ultimately, the make-up of the next European Commission is likely to have a bigger impact on the fate of e-cigarettes.
Under the spitzenkandidat system, the lead candidate of the political group which wins the election – and can command a majority in the parliament – will in theory become president and dole out the portfolios. Who the president chooses to appoint as health commissioner will make a big difference.
The outgoing health commissioner, Andriukaitis, has been hostile to e-cigarettes. His head of cabinet earlier this year called them “poison” and said he would be “reluctant” to sit with the tobacco industry to discuss novel tobacco products.
However, Andriukaitis’s position has had little impact because the issue did not come up during his term of office, and health has largely been a sidelined area under Jean-Claude Juncker’s Commission presidency. If the next president chooses to prioritise health, and appoints a health commissioner who views e-cigs as harmful to health, it will affect the proposals coming over the next two years on taxation, advertising and product categorisation.
“The current commissioner does not miss opportunities to state that he would enforce harsher regulation on vaping products,” says Forconi, who would like the next commission to be more open to talks on the topic. “Because of the legacy of tobacco, the vaping industry is precluded from interacting with certain stakeholders, especially in the Commission.”
For their part, the organisers of the Vaping is Not Tobacco campaign are not endorsing any particular party or candidate in the elections.
“We give no advice to vote for someone, we give the advice to get in touch with your local MEP to inform them about the product and ask them what their actions will be in the parliament when it comes to e-cigarettes,” Dustin Dahlmann, founder of the Independent European Vape Alliance (IEVA) told ECigIntelligence.
What This Means: According to ECigIntelligence figures, there are nearly 13m e-cigarette users in Europe in 2019.
The progress of scientific evidence, the design of a taxation system, and the upcoming revision of the TPD are all likely to be important issues over the next five years that will need to be tackled in the next EU legislature.
Europe’s political parties will need to take a clear position on the role that alternatives to tobacco can play in smoking cessation policies and whether there is need for a harmonised system of taxation.
– Dave Keating ECigIntelligence contributing writer
Photo: Marco Verch