When Britain left the EU, we liberated ourselves from countless thousands of pages of pointless or downright harmful legislation, not least in the field of public health.
The pre-Brexit TRPR (‘Tobacco and Related Products Regulations’ 2016) is currently under review by the government. As a result, there is huge unexploited scope within the post-Brexit regulatory framework for a greater embrace of tobacco harm reduction. Free from Brussels, there is no limit to how liberally we can approach the taxation and regulation of smoking and vaping.
Meanwhile, the European Union continues down the road of ceding more ground to the World Health Organisation (WHO) growing the state, hurting markets and consumers. The European Commission announced recently that it will publish its revised ‘tobacco excise directive’ later this year. It seems to already be laying the groundwork for increased tobacco taxes, noting that it has not bolstered the taxes it slaps on smokers since 2010:
“The Commission highlighted that tobacco taxation is outdated as it has not been revised since 2010, and does not capture the developments in the tobacco market or the inflation rates of the last decade.”
It’s early days, but the omens are not good. It looks very much like the European Commission is gearing up for a new war on smokers and vapers. Endless evidence shows that hiking taxes does not achieve what policymakers want it to achieve and causes plenty of collateral damage besides. But perhaps even more worryingly, the Commission is already talking about the importance of “the harmonisation of new tobacco products such as e-cigarettes, heated tobacco products and nicotine pouches”.
First off, e-cigarettes are not tobacco products. That’s the whole point. Vaping is a tool used successfully by millions of smokers around the world to quit cigarettes. Inhaling vapour rather than smoke is, according to Public Health England, around 95% healthier overall and approximately 200 times less likely to give you cancer.
The EU Commission looks set to join the WHO and the American FDA in clumsily labelling e-cigarettes ‘tobacco products’ and then treating them the same way in policymaking. That means they will be subject to the same harsh taxation and over-regulation of advertising as traditional cigarettes, despite the fact that they are by far the most effective method ever discovered for helping people quit smoking.
Britain has a chance to set itself apart and bring some much-needed common sense into the tobacco policy debate. Against the backdrop of the cost-of-living crisis, late 2022 would be an excellent time for our government to set itself apart from the EU by publicly embracing vaping. The government could no doubt win over many voters by slashing VAT on e-cigarettes, at once easing the cost-of-living squeeze and showing that in post-Brexit Britain, common sense wins out over virtue-signalling in public health policy.
If our continental neighbours hike taxes on e-cigarettes, making life more difficult for both vapers and smokers in economic and health terms, Britain’s forward-looking approach will shine by comparison. In public relations terms, it would be a repeat of the Covid vaccine triumph, in which Remoaners fretted that Brexit locking Britain out of the EU’s vaccine procurement scheme would spell disaster, only for the UK to acquire and roll out Covid vaccines much faster than any other European country.
As the government scrambles for ways to reduce the cost of living and fumbles its public health strategy, low-hanging fruit is abundant in the field of tobacco harm reduction. Smokers and vapers are too often ignored in politics or treated as an afterthought. Brexit is a golden opportunity to change that. As for the EU itself, if Euroscepticism continues rumbling throughout Europe, the project’s viability might soon depend on public opinion of Brussels, in which case treating these issues with compassion and common sense becomes all the more important.