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France urged to accept the science on how to stop smoking

France’s Parliamentary Office for Scientific and Technological Assessment has concluded that a drastic change in approach is required to get cigarette smokers to stop smoking, A report prepared by members of both chambers of the French Parliament recommends a risk reduction approach that offers smokers the chance to switch to much less harmful electronic cigarettes, writes Political Editor Nick Powell.

French tobacco policy relies heavily on high taxation to discourage cigarette smoking. This has led to an influx of smuggled, counterfeit and other illicit cigarettes and a continued high smoking rate compared with many other European countries. This ‘quit or die’ approach means that most people in France, according to a survey earlier this year, have little or no knowledge of smoke-free alternatives, such as e-cigarettes.

Switching to alternative tobacco products sharply reduces the danger to health faced by smokers, a fact that has now been accepted by the body that enables French parliamentarians to examine the scientific basis of Government policy. The Parliamentary Office for Scientific and Technological Assessment consists of 18 Members of the National Assembly and 18 Senators, assisted by 15 leading scientists.

The report by National Assembly Member Gérard Leseul and Senator Catherine Procaccia recommends adopting a new risk reduction approach aimed at getting all smokers to break their cigarette habit. It specifically supports switching to the policy of the United Kingdom, which integrates electronic cigarettes into its tobacco control strategy.

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It also calls for the swift launch of new and independent studies in France into the specific and relative harmfulness of different products and their effects on cigarette smoking. The report argues that it is particularly necessary to conduct independent studies on heated tobacco in order to inform future public policy.

The authors want consumers to receive clear, complete and objective information about different tobacco products, with warnings about the dangers of combining traditional cigarette smoking with the use of electronic cigarettes. They want to ban flavours found to particularly appeal to children and the sale of single-use e-cigarettes.

A seemingly obvious recommendation from the French politicians is that laws and regulations about tobacco products should be based on the best available scientific knowledge. However, there is a real danger that this essential principle is being abandoned at a European level. Although the EU is proud that its regulatory approach in different sectors is often adopted around the world, on tobacco policy the Commission seems content to follow the policies of the World Health Organisation.

Damian Sweeney of the European consumer advocacy umbrella organisation ETHRA (European Tobacco Harm Reduction Advocates) wrote last month to members of the European Parliament’s Working Party on Public Health about information it had received from the Commission and Presidency ahead of this autumn’s meeting in Panama of the parties to the World Health Organisation’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.

ETHRA warned that the key policy recommendations to be discussed in Panama would deny continued use of safer nicotine products for millions of European consumers who have successfully stopped smoking with the help of these products. In future, tens of millions of smokers would be deprived of the opportunity to reduce their health risks.

Damian Sweeney called for the EU position to reflect the views of the affected consumers and to uphold the core principles of the European Union relating to the internal market, proportionality, and non-discrimination in policymaking. “The policy recommendations, namely to severely restrict flavours in safer nicotine products, ban open-tank vapes (e-cigarettes), ban disposable vapes, prevent all forms of marketing or ban nicotine pouches, and to ban or regulate heated tobacco products in the same way as combustible cigarettes are at odds with the EU’s ambition to reach the WHO’s Sustainable Development Goal … to reduce premature deaths from four key non communicable diseases by one third by 2030”, he wrote.

“The critical distinction should be between combustible (harmful) and non-combustible (far less harmful) products”, he added. “Safer nicotine products function as substitutes for cigarettes. There is an abundance of government-funded and other independent research that bears this out. Measures such as increases in e-cigarette taxes, product flavour bans, advertising bans and access restrictions on safer nicotine products can increase smoking”.

“The fact that safer nicotine products are substitutes for cigarettes should be the central consideration in regulatory policies for nicotine. Yet, the WHO and the FCTC continue to ignore the evidence and instead position these products solely as a threat, failing to consider that safer nicotine products offer opportunities for public health. Countries that ban safer nicotine products have not eliminated their use; instead, they expose consumers to the unsafe and unregulated products, which remain widely available on the black and grey markets”.

Mr Sweeney was able to cite a host of scientific evidence, some of it actually commissioned by the World Health Organisation, that had been ignored. He pointed out that the WHO has made virtually no progress in reducing the number of smokers worldwide.

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