EU Ministers, Failing on Smoking Cessation, Weigh Vape Flavor Ban

    Health ministers from all 27 countries of the European Union met on June 21 to discuss a potential bloc-wide ban on flavors in vapes and other safer nicotine products. They considered submissions from Denmark and Latvia, which also included recommendations like cracking down on cross-border sales.

    The proposals would have to go through multiple further steps before being enacted. But amid hundreds of thousands of annual smoking-related deaths—and new evidence of the EU abjectly failing to meet its smoking-cessation goals—it’s a worrying development for tobacco harm reduction advocates.

    Most adults who switch from cigarettes to vapes prefer flavors other than tobacco, with many finding specific flavors critical to their success.

    The ministers were presented with a paper from the Danish delegation, submitted “on behalf of” 11 other countries, including European heavyweights Germany and France.

    Titled “Strengthening efforts to protect children from direct marketing and sale of tobacco and nicotine products, especially on digital platforms,” it stated: “We are calling the [European Commission, part of the EU executive] to initiate a debate on nicotine-based products, while allowing it to examine the range of possible regulations, which could make it possible for Member States to ban defined product categories as well.”

    The Tobacco Products Directive, which governs the EU’s nicotine and tobacco products market, allows member countries to set their own rules on flavors. Seven countries already ban them.

    We know from the decades-long War on Drugs that prohibitions do not cause banned products to disappear or demand to dissipate.”

    But according to a second paper, from Latvia—submitted on behalf of nine other countries, including Spain—the reality of cross-border sales makes this ineffective. Both Latvia and Spain are currently pursuing their own flavor restrictions. The Latvian proposal was also framed in child-protection terms, titled: “A call for action at the EU level to protect young people from harm caused by novel tobacco and nicotine products.”

    Two days before the meeting, European Tobacco Harm Reduction Advocates (ETHRA), a consumer advocacy group, sent an open letter to all EU health ministers, expressing concern.

    We wish to urge caution and provide some factual context for the discussion,” it stated. “The measures proposed are unlikely to protect young people and likely to do more harm than good overall.”

    Damian Sweeney, from Ireland—which signed up to both the Danish and Latvian proposals—is an ETHRA partner and a trustee for the New Nicotine Alliance Ireland advocacy group. We know from the decades-long War on Drugs that prohibitions do not cause banned products to disappear or demand to dissipate,” he told Filter. 

    In the event of the proposals being enacted, Sweeney continued, “we would expect an increase in smoking, through reduced adult switching and increased relapse from vaping to smoking; a growing black market for flavored products; and potentially dangerous consumer workarounds (DIY mixing, which can carry some risks).” 

    On June 24, the release of the 2024 report from Eurobarometer, a department of the European Commission, supplied important context for the recent proposals. At the current pace, it showed, the EU won’t achieve its “smoke-free” target of a smoking rate below 5 percent by 2040. 

    Instead, it will take until 2070

    “By stubbornly targeting harm reduction products instead of focusing on the real issue, the EU is not just failing but actively sabotaging public health efforts,” responded Michael Landl, director of the World Vapers Alliance, in a press release.  

    Eurobarometer found that the current EU vaping rate is 3 percent (2 percent use heated tobacco products, while 4 percent have at least tried nicotine pouches). The bloc’s average smoking rate is 24 percent. Making safer substitutes less attractive to people who smoke, by removing flavors, hardly seems a way to reverse those percentages. 

    France, one of the countries supporting Denmark’s proposal, has actually seen its smoking rate rise in the past two decades. It currently stands at 34.6 percent. Despite this, the country’s legislative efforts in this area have focused on banning disposable vapes.

    In contrast Sweden, a country which has embraced tobacco harm reduction—principally with snus, which is banned in the rest of the EU—has seen its smoking rate fall to 5.6 percent, a whisker away from “smoke-free” status.

    The recent European elections may have produced a legislature more open to tobacco harm reduction.

    The potential damage of an EU-wide flavor ban may not come to pass, however. If the health ministers collectively back the proposals, further steps to a new legislation being enacted would include a vote in the European Parliament. And the recent European elections, when the center-right European People’s Party (EPP) grouping increased its plurality, may have produced a legislature more open to tobacco harm reduction (THR).

    Supporters of THR include people all along the political spectrum. But it’s curious, given THR’s obvious social justice and health equity implications, that elected officials on the right are sometimes more favorable than their left-wing counterparts.

    Sweeney said that “as far as THR is concerned,” the EPP’s electoral success is “positive” because they “have been supportive of THR.” 

    “But I think it’s important to remember that THR isn’t and shouldn’t be a right/left issue,” he continued. “It’s a people issue. As advocates, we need to bring as many people as possible on board, no matter what their political leanings are.”

    The threat hasn’t disappeared, however. It’s possible that the European Commission will propose a flavor ban when the impact assessment and public consultation for the next Tobacco Products Directive is published in 2025,” Sweeney said. “This is where advocacy and building relationships with [European Parliament members] will be key, as proposals will have to be debated and voted on in committee and in parliament.”



    Photograph (cropped) by Sébastien Bertrand via Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons 2.0

    • Kiran is a tobacco harm reduction fellow for Filter. She is a writer and journalist who has written for publications including the Guardian, the Telegraph, I Paper and the Times, among many others. Her book, I Can Hear the Cuckoo, was published by Gaia in 2023. She lives in Wales.

      Kiran’s fellowship is supported by an independently administered tobacco harm reduction scholarship from Knowledge-Action-Change—an organization that has separately provided restricted grants and donations to Filter.

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