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EU should look at how Sweden achieved the lowest smoking rate in Europe 

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At the end of November, there has been some commotion around leaked documents related to the EU's Tobacco Tax Directive (TED), in which the European Commission not only sets out its preliminary plans for a tax increase on tobacco but also wants to introduce a common European tax on alternative, less risky products, such as vaping devices and heated tobacco products. Rumours of such a proposal have been circulating for some time.

The Financial Times, which had managed to get its hands on a draft proposal from the EC, announced the news in late November. Following this news, rumours also quickly surfaced that both oral nicotine products, the nicotine non-tobacco-containing pouches, and snus, which are banned in the EU, but very popular in Sweden, would also be affected by the new tax, almost doubling their price.

In Sweden, this last point is very sensitive for several reasons. After all, the country has been thanks to snus waging a successful battle against cigarettes for years. As a result, the Swedish Public Health authority announced that in 2022 the number of smokers reduced by an extra point to 5.6 per cent of the population. As such, Swedish smoking prevalence of 5,6% is one-fourth of the EU average of 23% and is the lowest in the EU and one of the lowest in the World.

This puts Stockholm on the podium of the countries with greater smoking declines, ahead of the EU and the world. As a result, the country is well ahead of the European Cancer Plan's goal of a "smoke-free generation" by 2040, which aims to reduce the number of smokers in Europe to 5 per cent of the population.

Sweden is the only European country to meet this target well-before  2040. Meanwhile, smoking remains the leading risk factor for premature death in the continent. One in five deaths is due to smoking.

While Brussels continues to pursue a rigid policy that not only tackles traditional tobacco products but - driven by a solid anti-tobacco lobby –seeks to place under the same provisions applied to cigarettes the novel products, such as e-cigarettes,  heated tobacco, pouches and snus. These products, according to industry and some public health authorities in the US, Germany, Belgium, France, or The Netherlands because they lack combustion and smoke, are considered to be less harmful for smokers.

The Swedish model contrasts sharply with the European Commission’s policies and conservative approach, and with the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) sub-agency for tobacco control that after more than a decade of non-combustibles having hit the markets, still refuses to accept harm reduction measures, others than cessation, stating that novel products are pending rigorous independent scientific evaluation that the WHO claims isn’t available, and that the WHO won’t carry out. This attitude is mirrored at the European level, despite significant European Parliament efforts to include evaluation of the scientific evidence behind risk reduction of the new products in the European cancer control plan.

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The leaked EU tax proposal puts pressure on the Swedish model to curb smoking, as Sweden prepares to take over the Presidency in January 2023. The Commission’s blindness to the success of the Swedish Snusin bringing down the country’s smoking rates to record low levels, together with the ban of snus in the rest of the EU, restricting access of a product that Swedes are proud of, helps  explaining the fierce Swedish politicians’ reactions to the Commission's alleged plans to introduce a European tax on snus that could almost double the price and the fear that Sweden could be the next target of the highly profitable trade that organized crime has in Europe of nicotine products.

Debate in Brussels on this topic will be according to our sources, on if the TED proposal will allow the Commission to quietly revamp their hardly efficient tobacco control measures in comparison to the harm reduction inclusive tobacco control ones of Sweden. Talk is that the Commission would not recognise that the EU ban on snus was a public health mistake, placing the over 90 million European smokers that despite all the taxes and restrictions continue to smoke at greater risk than they need to be. However, this will not be a foregone conclusion, as the country pursues a lonely anti-smoking policy, which, despite its spectacular results, deviates sharply from the EU's orthodox policy. As a result, further diversion through taxes and excise duties are expected mainly - and mostly in vain - not only on cigarettes but also on novel reduced-risk smokeless products. 

In the end, the European Union is mainly looking at the revenue it plans to generate - more than €9 billion extra revenue from a European tax increase on tobacco - rather than public health gains for smokers. This is unfortunate for European citizens and the predetermined policy goals within the European Union. Swedish EU commissioner Ylva Johansson revealed last week in Swedish media that the new proposals to tax snus more heavily would harm Sweden and provide further incentives for the illegal tobacco trade, thus as we have witnessed in countries like France, where according to the latest  KPMG report on the growing size and cost of illicit tobacco consumption in Europe, the loss to the French state alone averages around €6 billion a year, and the illicit cigarettes share of the tobacco market went up 3 times to nearly 40%. France, due to the high excise rates, remains the biggest market for illicit cigarettes in the EU with a total of more than 15 billion illicit cigarettes consumed in 2021, leading to close to 30% of the total cigarettes consumption in the EU, growing drastically from 13% in 2017.

Will the European Commission’s pride stand in the way of protecting smokers who have failed to quit, and will it harm states' revenues in a time of looming recession?

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