Will the EU's new tobacco directive stop people smoking?
Last week the European Parliament voted to approve a package of measures designed to try to stop young people smoking. It took over two years of negotiations between the Parliament, the European Commission and the Council of Ministers for the Tobacco Directive to take shape, and finally be approved by MEPs. Here in Sweden the most important part of the debate about the directive was if the traditional wet oral tobacco snus could be banned.
According to figures from the Swedish Public Health Agency around ten percent of Swedes smoke regularly, and 12,000 people die each year from smoking-related illnesses. If you look at all the member states of the European Union that number rockets to 700,000 deaths caused by smoking every year.
Last week the European Parliament voted to approve a series of measures to try to prevent young people from starting to smoke in the first place. That includes increasing the size of warning labels on cigarette packets, as well as adding pictures of diseased body parts. Flavoured tobacco products, such as menthol cigarettes, will also be banned over the coming years. Christoffer Fjellner is a conservative Moderate member of the European Parliament and he voted in favour of the directive, but despite that says he doesn't think the new regulations will stop people from starting to smoke.
"I think that if politicians claim that they can do that", he told Radio Sweden, "I think they are probably lying. It is so addictive, and it is so common in society, so what we have the opportunity to do is to regulate it, regulate it tough, and stop young people from starting to smoke. This directive might on the margins help us."
Swedish snus, as it is called, is a wet type of oral tobacco that you do not chew or sniff, but instead put under your upper lip. Around ten percent of Swedes regularly use snus, and while it is banned in the rest of Europe, Sweden has an exemption under EU law, allowing citizens of Sweden to use the highly-addictive tobacco product.
But questions were raised during the negotiations about whether snus should be banned here too. In the compromise deal, the status quo was maintained, despite the best attempts of the Swedish government and Swedish MEP's to persuade their European collagues to allow the export of this very Swedish product to the rest of Europe as well.
"There is no debate that it is less harmful than cigarettes", conservative Moderate MEP Christoffer Fjellner says, "and the fact that snus is the only tobacco product that is banned in Europe is still absurd."
While in other countries news reports about the new tobacco directive have been dominated by packet labelling issues and the decision to ban menthol cigarettes as well as electronic cigarettes, it is the snus issue that has united most Swedish MEPs and the government. They claim snus means that less people in Sweden smoke cigarettes.
Christian Engström is one of the Pirate Party's two MEP's, and he voted against the directive.
"I voted against it primarily from a Swedish perspective", he told Radio Sweden, "we have this snus, and it isn't a healthy product in itself, nobody claims that, but it's somewhere between a tenth and a hundredth as dangerous as burning cigarettes. If you can stop smoking 'cold turkey', that's obviously the very best, but in Sweden we have half as many people dying from smoking related diseases because we have half as many smokers. I think it is unfair to other Europeans not to give them that opportunity if they would want to."
He does add, however that the characteristic taste and smell of snus may put most Europeans off using the highly addictive product.
"Snus is quite an ethnic Swedish product. People outside Scandinavia, the first time they see it they normally think 'I've never seen anything more disgusting in my whole life'."
The EU's Council of Ministers will rubber-stamp the deal on March 14th.