Attitudes of Europeans towards tobacco and electronic cigarettes

Posted 8th June 2017 by Dave Cross
The European Commission’s 2017 Eurobarometer has been published and presents what they think people across Europe think about tobacco and vaping. It highlights the failure in the Union’s current approach to tobacco harm reduction and offers some very distinct fears for the future. Those who backed Brexit may well welcome the UK being able to escape possible future restrictions on ecig packaging and liquid flavours.

Rather than see the results of their labours in a negative light, EU officials state that laws haven’t been in place long enough to see the impact and that there are some countries not enforcing the directives.

Vytenis Andriukaitis is EU Commissioner for Health and Food Safety, he commented: “The vast majority of member states have notified full transposition of the [TPD] Directive. The Commission is currently checking these transposition measures.”

“We [did] not expect any significant change in smoking rates only one year on. The new rules have not been in effect long enough, and don’t forget that manufacturers [had] been given a 12-month window until May 2017 to use up old stock. The next survey is planned for 2019-2020, which will be the moment to assess the first impact of the Directive."

That’s correct, you read it, if the Tobacco Products Directive has a disastrous effect on the conversion from smoking to vaping, and the minimum tobacco pack sizes prevent easy quitting, no changes will be considered for the next three years – and then nothing will happen while the debating takes place again.

To help them avoid admitting to their mistakes, the European Commission is covering its back with some bizarre public opinion poll findings. This Eurobarometer survey is the most recent in a series that has been carried out since 2003, with the last survey in 2014. The current survey also explores the use and advertising of electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes). It was carried out by the TNS opinion & social network in the 28 Member States of the European Union between the 18th and the 27th of March 20171. 27,901 respondents from different social and demographic groups were interviewed face-to-face at home in their mother tongue.

The findings use language carefully: “The overall proportion of smokers in the EU is stable since 2014 (26%)”. It’s an oddly positive way of stating that, across Europe, anti-smoking measures have resolutely failed to have any impact in three years. Worse, for all of the harping on about “protecting children” that took place during the TPD deliberations, smoking rates have actually increased from 24% to 29% in the 15-24yrs age group.

There is distinct variation across the nations. The highest rates of smoking are in the southern European nations while the two lowest figures are recorded in Sweden (where snus is embraced) and the UK (where we welcomed vaping).

Considering how many more people are currently vaping in the UK compared to three years ago it’s incredible the Commission states: “The proportion of respondents who have at least tried e-cigarettes has increased slightly.” Slightly?

And they would have us believe that regular use has remained static.

“Just over half (55%) of respondents think that e-cigarettes are harmful to the health of their users,” the report adds. “This proportion increased slightly since 2014 (+3 percentage points).”

Moreover, these mystery vapers found little by way of success in vaping: “Most e-cigarette users took them up to try and curb their tobacco intake, but this worked only for a minority. Only a small minority (14%) stated that they stopped smoking tobacco entirely due to taking up e-cigarettes, with 10% saying they stopped but then started again, and 17% saying that they reduced their intake of tobacco but did not stop smoking.”

According to the Eurobarometer survey, the socio-demographic differences from respondents who have at least tried e-cigarettes were as follows:

  • Men (17%) are slightly more likely than women (12%) to say they have at least tried e- cigarettes. 

  • A quarter of young people have at least tried e-cigarettes as have 21% of those aged 25-39. By comparison 6% of respondents aged 55 or over have done so. 

  • Respondents who left full-time education at the age of 20 or over (14%) are slightly more likely to have at least tried e-cigarettes than those who left at the age of 15 or before (8%). 

  • Unemployed people (25%), manual workers (20%), students (19%) and the self-employed (18%) are most likely to have tried e-cigarettes. 

  • Those who have trouble paying their bills are particularly likely to have at least tried e- cigarettes (23%), especially when compared to those who never or almost never have these difficulties (12%). 

  • Unsurprisingly, smokers (37%) are much more likely to have to tried e-cigarettes, particularly when compared to those who have never smoked (3%). 

  • Almost half of respondents who have tried to quit smoking have also tried e-cigarettes (47%). 

  • More established smokers are significantly less likely to have tried e-cigarettes: around half of those who have been smoking for 5 or less years have tried them (48-51%), compared to 13-29% of those who have been smoking for more than 20 years. 

  • Occasional smokers (42%) are slightly more likely to have tried e-cigarettes than daily smokers (32%). 

The Commission will probably try to spin their findings about flavours, but it seems clear that sweet flavours aid successful quitting: “The most popular flavour of e-cigarette among current users is fruit flavour, preferred by nearly half of respondents. Among current e-cigarette users who use them at least on a monthly basis, the most popular flavour of e-cigarette is fruit flavour, mentioned by nearly half (47%) of respondents. Tobacco flavour (36%) is slightly less popular, followed by menthol or mint (22%) and candy flavour (18%). Alcohol flavoured e-cigarettes are the least popular, favoured by only 2% of respondents, while a small minority (3%) also mentioned other, unspecified, flavours.”

This compares strongly with what they discovered from ex-vapers, those people who were smokers and unsuccessfully tried vaping. These, as they classify them, “former users of e-cigarettes” used tobacco flavours. Over half tried for a direct cigarette replacement off the bat, with a third going for a fruit flavour. Given that the starter kits only appear to offer poor-quality tobacco, fruit and menthol liquids this result is not surprising. Plus, it offers a strong argument why flavours popular with successful vapers should not be banned.

Where European vapers need to be wary is with the final section of the Eurobarometer’s findings: “A significant majority of respondents are in favour of prohibiting the use of e-cigarettes in places where smoking bans have been introduced. Nearly two thirds (63%) of those polled say that such a ban should be brought in, while only just over a quarter (26%) are against such a ban. Public opinion has remained stable on this question since the last survey in December 2014.”

Further, four in ten (40%) respondents agree that the ban on displaying tobacco products in store should be extended to cover vape products, with nearly a quarter (23%) are undecided on this policy. In country variations, 80% of Irish respondents wanted vaping hidden out of sight! There is mixed response to whether vape products should adopt the plain packaging of tobacco products, but it is frightening it is even being discussed.

When it comes to a future flavour ban: “In all but six countries, only a minority of respondents favour banning flavours in e-cigarettes, but this policy is nevertheless supported by a plurality in 21 countries. Lithuania (70%) and Cyprus (63%) have particularly high rates of support for a ban, and a majority supports a ban in Ireland (57%), Finland (53%), Malta (53%) and Latvia (52%). In most cases there is no more than a 10 percentage point difference between the proportion of respondents who support a ban and the proportion opposing it: the exceptions are Austria, where nearly half (48%) oppose a ban and less than four in ten (37%) support it, France, where 46% are in against and 35% in favour, and the Czech Republic, where nearly half (47%) oppose a ban and less than a third (32%) are in favour. The proportion of respondents favouring a ban on flavours in e-cigarettes is also particularly low in Denmark (32%).”

Wholly unsurprisingly, “Over eight in 10 e-cigarette users (84%) are opposed to a ban on flavours in e-cigarettes, with less than a tenth (9%) supporting this policy.” We can only guess at what was going through the minds of the one in ten vapers who support a flavour ban!

As far as he is concerned, Vytenis Andriukaitis believes the correct course of action is being taken: “E-cigarettes are relatively new and the long-term effects on public health are not yet known. It is still also unclear whether using e-cigarettes can lead to experimentation with other tobacco products. The Tobacco Products Directive only covers e-cigarettes containing nicotine, a substance that we know is addictive and toxic. The EU has not banned e-cigarettes, but we do believe that it is appropriate under the TPD to include rules on quality and safety requirements as well as on packaging and labeling of e-cigarettes.”

It certainly doesn’t appear as though the harm reduction arguments have made it into the European administrative system yet, and that worse could be set to happen in the future.

Charts taken from The European Commission’s 2017 Eurobarometer

 Dave Cross
Article by Dave Cross
Freelance writer, physicist, karateka, dog walker