Zoltán Massay-Kosubek

Tobacco, a weapon of mass destruction. The most significant, avoidable health harmful product – which will kill you if you use it as it is intended, is still responsible for 7 million deaths worldwide (as much as air pollution) – and 700.000 in Europe. Since I stopped active campaigning in 2014 on tobacco until when I coordinated public health civil society actions around the Tobacco Products Directive, I have been turning my attention to emerging public health challenges such as the future of EU health policy, the threats of international trade rules on public health or air pollution. But Big Tobacco never sleeps and keeps creeping death from its lethal product to one quarter of the European population.

How about Big Tobacco sponsorship

As a recent scandal of the presence of tobacco sponsorship in is the most influential and most financially-sound EU publication demonstrated, Big Tobacco is definitely there.

(source of Photo – European Parliament)

Plain tobacco packaging the Silver Bullet to stop the tobacco epidemic.

Taxation, reducing availability and tobacco free portfolios are good examples of many good policy actions to reduce tobacco related harm. But if I was to mention one single issue national governments can make a huge difference is certainly plain packaging.

Based on the latest evidence available on tobacco packages as well as the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control guidelines, the introduction of plain standardised packaging can be strongly recommended. Increasing the size of warning messages enhances the effectiveness of the warning amongst both young and adult smokers and non smokers. A systematic review of the evidence shows that health warnings on tobacco packs are effective in discouraging young people from taking up smoking and in motivating smokers to think about quitting. In 2010, Uruguay implemented health warnings covering 80% of both front and back of tobacco packages. Since then, cigarette consumption decreased by an average 4.3% per year, while in its neighbour country, Argentina, it decreased by 0.6%. Similarly, the prevalence of tobacco use decreased by 3.3% a year, more than twice as much as Argentina. Other countries like Canada and Australia with comprehensive tobacco control strategies in place including large pictorial health warnings have seen significant declines on year in youth smoking.

Are national legislation on plain tobacco packaging in line with EU law?

Yes, they are. As I pointed out in 2016, the Tobacco Products Directive allows member states to go beyond the minimum EU rules – an interpretation which was confirmed by the European Court of Justice. Article 24 of the Tobacco Products Directive recognises the right of a Member States to maintain and introduce further requirements applicable to all products placed on its market in relation to standardisation of packaging of tobacco products, where it is justified on grounds of public health, taking into account the high level of protection achieved through this Directive.

Frontline tobacco regulation at Member State level – case studies from Austria, Slovenia and Hungary

And tobacco activity has been reported at member state level where recent attempts were reported to weaken tobacco control measures. Frontline reports from three, Central and Eastern European Countries.

Case 1 – Austria will no longer remain the ashtray of Europe

Smoking in Austrian bars and restaurants will be banned as of November 2019 following a vote in parliament on Tuesday, after years of protracted debate on the issue. Only MPs from the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe) voted against the ban, which looks set to finally rid Austria of its status as the “ashtray of Europe”. The FPOe — whose former leader Heinz-Christian Strache is himself a keen smoker — had stymied a previous attempt to ban smoking in pubs and restaurants when it entered government in December 2017. That prompted a backlash from large sections of the public and the Austrian medical association, which organised a petition in favour of the ban signed by almost 900,000 people, or around 14 percent of voters.

Case 2 – Slovenia – Green light to implement Plain Packaging from 1st January 2020

I am hapy to report that on Monday 1st of July the Slovenian and the European Public Health community hands in hands achieved an important result in protecting the health of the people of Slovenia from the tobacco epidemic. In the Parliament, at the session of Committee on Health, a majority of parliamentarians have voted against of the new proposed law to 3 years-delay of entering into force of the plain packaging of tobacco products in Slovenia. In other words, the plain packaging will be enforced on 1 January 2020 as initially planned.

Case 3 – Hungary – no access to tobacco for people born after 1 January 2020

János Lázár, who headed the Prime Ministerʼs Office during the previous term of the governing Fidesz-KDNP alliance, has been mandate to manage tobacco control measures and he is aiming at proposing a complete ban on purchasing tobacco products for anyone born in Hungary after January 1, 2020. The absolute ban would aim at Hungary becoming “the first smoke-free country in the world”, he added. He just presented a complex package aiming at limiting smoking and tobacco consumption – including banning smoking in cars, stricter rules on tobacco advertisement and on e-cigarettes.

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