In its conclusions in June, the European Council approved a new consensus on excise duties on tobacco. The member states suggest rule changes that would increase the price of tobacco, and equally affect non-tobacco products such as e-cigarettes, writes Bill Wirtz.
Since 2011, the European Union has had a common minimum excise duty on tobacco products, which notably increased the price of cigarettes in those European countries where the prices are comparatively low. Neighbouring countries with higher taxes were claiming that the prevalence of cross-border purchases was subverting their own public health goals. For instance, German commuters buy tobacco in Luxembourg, as the price is lower than in their local shops.
Now that the 2011 directive has not yielded the benefits that some member states expected, or more plausibly, hasn’t produced the number of tax revenues that member states need in the current economic situation, they would like a revision. This revision, however, is not only targeting conventional tobacco products such as cigarettes, snuff, shisha, or cigars and cigarillos. For the first time, the European Council is asking for non-tobacco products also to be included in the… tobacco excise directive. This would make it hard for member states to pretend that the objective is public health and not reducing treasury deficits, as the logical equivalent of this move would be to classify non-alcoholic as an alcoholic beverage.
E-cigarettes or heat-not-burn devices represent viable alternatives for consumers of conventional tobacco products. We know that while not harmless, vaping is 95% less harmful than smoking cigarettes. By every available logic, governments should rejoice in the prevalence of these alternatives. However, the European Council concludes that “it is therefore urgent and necessary to upgrade the EU regulatory framework, to tackle current and future challenges in respect of the functioning of the internal market by harmonising definitions and tax treatment of novel products (such as liquids for e-cigarettes and heated tobacco products), including products, whether or not containing nicotine, that substitute tobacco, to avoid legal uncertainty and regulatory disparities in the EU”.
Adding excise taxes to reduced risk products sends the wrong signal to consumers that these products are just as risky as cigarettes. Research from the United States shows that every 10% increase in the price of vaping products results in an 11% increase in cigarettes purchases.
How serious are EU member states about increasing public health if their go-to method of prevention is raising the tax burden on consumers? E-cigarettes are one thing, but we should not disillusion ourselves with the idea that taxing cigarettes more does anyone any good either. The Council conclusions themselves recognize that Europe is facing a wave of the illicit tobacco trade, and asks for more solutions to fight it. Illegal trade correlates with increased tax burdens: by taxing low-income households out of cigarettes, which remain a legal product nonetheless, we are pushing them on the black market, where criminal elements profit off of bad public health management. In France for instance, a 2015 report found the country to be Europe’s largest consumer of fake cigarettes, with 15 per cent of the market share.
With a lack of quality control, these illegal smokes represent are much more endemic threat to consumer health. Adding to that, the revenues from the sale of these cigarettes benefits international terrorism — the French Centre d’analyse du terrorisme (Centre for Terrorism Analysis) even showed that illicit tobacco sales finance 20 per cent of international terrorism. Organizations such as the IRA, Al-Qaida and ISIS fund their activities that way.
The European Council’s suggested changes to the Tobacco Excise Directive is counterproductive to the goals of public health, and are set to reduce consumer choice and health. We need to analyse rule-changes for more than just their intentions, but look at their prospective results.
Originally published here.
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