Thursday 25 May 2017

The nanny state we're in

Since the first edition of the Nanny State Index was published in March 2016, there have been many regulatory changes, most of them for the worse. Of the 28 countries included, all but six of them have a higher score than they did last year.

2016 was a particularly bad year for vapers. Eleven countries now forbid the use of e-cigarettes wherever smoking is banned after Finland, Luxembourg, Hungary and Poland joined the fold. As governments seek to raise money and protect their tobacco revenues, there is also a growing trend towards taxing e-cigarette fluid. Greece, Slovenia, Romania, Latvia and Hungary all introduced new taxes in 2016, and e-cigarette tax rates now range from €0.01 per ml in Latvia to €0.60 per ml in Portugal. Although some governments have been slow to recognise the health benefits of safer nicotine products, they have been quick to see their potential for raising revenue. The emergence of ‘heat-not-burn’ technology, such as iQOS, has inspired Greece and Slovakia to approve new taxes that specifically target tobacco for ‘electronically heated’ products.

The most significant change that took place in 2016 was the introduction of the EU’s Tobacco Products Directive (TPD) which came into effect in May. This legislation is principally aimed at smokers, with a ban on packs of ten, mandatory graphic warnings and, from 2020, a ban on menthol cigarettes, but it also places a significant burden on vapers. The TPD bans all e-cigarette fluids containing more than two per cent nicotine, restricts the sale of e-cigarette fluid to small, 10ml bottles, and bans e-cigarette advertising in printed media, online and on television and radio. As a result of the TPD, twelve countries that scored a perfect zero for nanny state regulation of e-cigarettes now have at least 16 points (out of 100).

The UK and France decided to gold-plate the TPD by becoming the first countries in the Northern hemisphere to ban branding on tobacco packaging (‘plain’ or ‘standardised’ packaging). Hungary, Slovenia and Ireland look set to join them in the next few years and there have inevitably been calls to roll this policy out to food and alcohol.

It is not all bad news, however. Some governments used the TPD as an opportunity to liberalise their vaping laws. Countries that previously had a de jure or de facto ban on e-cigarette sales, including Finland, Denmark, Hungary and Belgium, now permit their sale under varying degrees of regulation.
There are a few flickers of liberalisation in other areas as well. Finland discarded its tax on confectionery, chocolate and ice cream in January 2017 and the Finnish government is considering relaxing its highly restrictive alcohol laws by, for example, making it legal to buy a round of drinks and pay by credit card. In Slovakia, cyclists are now permitted to drink a pint of beer before using a cycle lane. Last year, the Czech Republic’s finance minister pledged to halve VAT on draft beer (this has not yet happened) and, in Bulgaria, a proposed tax on fast food and energy drinks in Bulgaria was rejected thanks to the finance minister.

The most sensational piece of deregulation came in Sweden where the e-cigarette market went from complete illegality to laissez-faire by accident. After Sweden’s Supreme Administrative Court ruled that e-cigarettes are not medical devices and cannot be regulated as such, they fell into legal limbo where they remain at the time of writing. Unsurprisingly, there have been no reports of any health problems as result of e-cigarettes being freely bought and sold. The Swedish government should bear this in mind when it finally gets around to regulating the vaping market.

Looking to the future, the prospects for lifestyle freedom generally look bleak. A number of countries are seeking to join Hungary, Finland and France in putting a ‘sin tax’ on sugary drinks. Belgium has already done so. Ireland and the UK will join them next year. Latvia and Lithuania have set a precedent by banning the sale of energy drinks to people aged under 18. France banned free refills of fizzy drinks at the start of 2017. Sweden is set to regulate alcoholic ice cream. Greece has introduced a tax on wine for the first time.

The Czech Republic will soon introduce an indoor smoking ban, albeit with plenty of exemptions. Romania introduced a more severe smoking ban last year, leaving only Austria, Germany and Slovakia as the last truly smoker-friendly countries in the EU - and Austria has a ban planned for 2018. Cyprus is looking to both extend its ban to some outdoor places and include vaping in it. The governments of Scotland and Finland have set a deadline for making their countries ‘tobacco-free’. Estonia and the Netherlands are seriously considering a retail display ban for tobacco.

There has been little in the way of nanny state regulation of alcohol since the last Index was published, but that looks set to change. Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia are all on the verge of introducing heavy temperance legislation, with the health minister of Estonia publicly stating that he wants to treat alcohol and tobacco in the same way, ie. with draconian regulation. Minimum pricing for alcohol is tied up in the courts at the time of writing but, win or lose, the Scottish government will be able to introduce this regressive policy after Brexit. Meanwhile, Ireland has tabled a temperance law that will introduce minimum pricing, extensive advertising restrictions and possibly even a retail display ban similar to that already in place for tobacco.

This rising tide of lifestyle regulation confirms C.S. Lewis’s view that ‘those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.’ The nanny state never sleeps. There is so much legislation and so many new proposals that it can be difficult to keep up, but that is what the Nanny State Index aims to do.

[This is an excerpt from the 2017 Nanny State Index which you can download here.]

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