Thursday 13 May 2021

The 2021 Nanny State Index

Europe's hall of shame

The latest edition of the Epicenter Nanny State Index, which I've spent the last few months putting together, is published today. Regular readers will know that it's a biennial league table of the best and worst places in the Europe to eat, drink, smoke and vape.

Since the last edition was published in 2019, the COVID-19 pandemic has led governments around the world to impose coercive controls on an almost unprecedented scale. As the world slowly returns to normal, it is crucial that all liberties are restored.

The pandemic was a reminder of the difference between a genuine public health problem that requires collective action and self-regarding private behaviours which do not. Outbreaks of serious infectious disease are thankfully rare in the developed world and COVID-19 required an effective public health response. In Europe, too many public health agencies had been distracted by the nanny state agenda and were ill equipped to carry out their core function of protecting the public from infectious disease. Even the World Health Organisation seemed more interested in banning e-cigarettes and taxing sugary drinks than in controlling the coronavirus.

When lockdowns were introduced in the spring of 2020, paternalists seized the opportunity to impose the kind of lifestyle regulation they had hitherto only been able to dream about. At one point, one in five people worldwide were living in a country where the sale of cigarettes and e-cigarettes was illegal. For a while, a quarter of the world’s population lived under alcohol prohibition. As more people were forced to socialise outdoors, anti-smoking campaigners demanded outdoor smoking bans. Campaigners in the USA and elsewhere claimed (falsely) that vaping increased the risks of people catching the virus. E-cigarette shops and alcohol retailers were deemed ‘non-essential’ in many countries. When lockdown ended, bars reopened but some countries did not allow them to serve alcohol.

It is an ill wind that blows no good and the pandemic response also led to modest liberalisation in some places. A few countries legalised home delivery for alcoholic drinks. Some countries, such as the UK, allowed more bars to serve drinks on the street. But, overall, the pandemic gave the nanny statists an opportunity to ruthlessly exploit.

This edition of the index reflects the situation as of March 2021, but we have not included legislation that is expected to be a genuinely temporary response to the pandemic. The outlook is bleak nonetheless. Almost without exception, governments across Europe are adopting higher sin taxes and more prohibitions.

This year, the index has been expanded to thirty countries - the EU plus Iceland, Norway and the United Kingdom. Norway tops the league table although that could change once it legalises e-cigarettes. Lithuania, with its heavy temperance legislation, is again in second place while Finland drops to third.

The top of the table is dominated by Scandinavia, Eastern Europe and the British Isles. Greece is the only country from southern Europe in the top half, largely thanks to its very high sin taxes on alcohol and tobacco. At the more liberal end of the table, the best countries are a mixed bag. Germany has performed the extraordinary feat of having the lowest score in all four categories of the index. Hovering above it we find Czechia, Luxembourg, Spain and Italy, all of which have done well in previous editions. Denmark is just above this group and is the only Scandinavian country not in the top ten. That seems likely to change in the future, however. Like the Netherlands, Denmark has a slew of hardcore nanny state policies in the pipeline.

Twelve countries now have taxes on sugary drinks, ranging from five eurocents per litre in Hungary to 30 eurocents in Ireland. Several countries also tax artificially sweetened drinks. And thirteen countries tax e-cigarette fluid (up from eleven in 2019), with tax rates ranging from six eurocents per ml in Hungary to 30 eurocents in Finland and Portugal.

Germany is now the only country in the EU that could be described as smoker-friendly. Previous contenders Austria and Czechia have both introduced draconian smoking bans in recent years. The number of vaper-friendly countries is also dwindling. Seventeen of the thirty countries in the index have made it illegal to use an e-cigarette wherever smoking is prohibited. Sixteen countries have a total or near-total ban on e-cigarette advertising.

We have made a few changes to the index since the 2019 edition was published. As heated tobacco products have become popular, taxes on heated tobacco have inevitably become attractive to politicians. A new subcategory has therefore been included in the tobacco section, worth up to five points. Countries that have been foolish enough to ban these products (Malta and Norway) are given maximum points.

Ireland has pioneered the alcohol display ban (otherwise known as the booze curtain) and so a new subcategory has been added to take that into account. It is also worth five points. A subcategory for minimum alcohol pricing, which is now in force in Wales and Scotland and may soon be in place in Ireland, was added in the 2019 edition.

All taxes are adjusted for affordability in the Nanny State Index. This year, in a change to the previous methodology, we use median incomes rather than per capita GDP for this calculation. Median incomes are a better guide to the spending power of individuals, particularly in corporate tax havens where GDP does not accurately reflect average incomes.

The big picture is one of a constantly expanding nanny state raising prices and trampling freedom. The blame for this lies overwhelmingly with domestic governments, not with the European Union. The EU banned menthol cigarettes in May 2020, but it cannot be held responsible for regressive taxation, draconian smoking bans and excessive regulation of alcohol and food. The gulf between the freest countries at the bottom of the table and the least liberal countries at the top is almost entirely the result of decisions made by their own governments. Change is possible.

The Nanny State Index is a huge collaborative project which involves gathering and checking over a thousand pieces of data. As always, we thank our friends and partners across Europe who make it possible.

Download the publication here and visit the website here. If you spot anything that you think is an error, let me know. 

And you can watch the launch event live on YouTube at 1pm tomorrow.

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