Is Paris poised to make new strides in tobacco control in 2024?

Is Paris poised to make new strides in tobacco control in 2024?

When France unveiled a new tobacco control plan late last year, anti-smoking campaigners were quick to caution that despite the promising-sounding headlines—“from now on, no-smoking areas will be the norm,” proclaimed then-health minister Aurélien Rousseau about the policy—the strategy fell short in a number of ways.

At least one of the weaknesses of the original plan has already been corrected, with an unexpected tobacco price hike coming into effect in France on January 1st, with cigarettes rising by between 50 cents and 1 euro a pack. While the price increase is a step in the right direction, it’s just the first step. French tobacco control NGOs have reminded that tobacco prices will need to be significantly and persistently increased in order to quash the stubbornly-high smoking rates seen in France— and, indeed, in much of the EU. What’s more, MPs, led by Seine-et-Marne representative Frédéric Valletoux, have stressed the need to target the serious illicit trade plague which is helping keep smoking rates high.

Encouragingly, the new government of Prime Minister Gabriel Attal could provide a boon for France’s fledgling tobacco control agenda. The French PM has previously called for a bolstered anti-smuggling crusade based on increased criminal penalties, deployment of law enforcement officials and investment in high-tech scanning equipment.

With the EU aiming to progress its own smoke free agenda and actively reviewing its tobacco control policies ahead of the TPD revision planned for 2025, new energy in France’s fight against tobacco will hopefully come alongside new progress in the EU’s fight to tackle the root causes of Europe’s smoking problem.

Stagnating anti-smoking progress

The French government’s latest tobacco control move comes after 5 years of stagnation at 15 million smokers – of which 12 million are daily consumers – with France’s 22% smoking rate positioning it well above the EU average.

According to a 2023 report from the French Observatory of Drugs and Addiction Trends (OFDT), smoking caused over 73,000 deaths in 2019, while generating a “social cost” –  including cancer patients’ lost qualify of life, economic value of lives lost and public healthcare spending – of more than €150 billion annually. Crucially, this new research has revealed that the French government’s smoking-related annual losses massively exceed the tax revenue generated from tobacco sales – less than one-tenth at a mere €13 billion in the year of study.

France is certainly not the only country paying a heavy price thanks to its smoking habit. At the EU level, tobacco consumption remains the bloc’s leading cause of avoidable health risks and premature death, killing nearly 700,000 people across the union every year. 

New tobacco control frontier opening

Encouragingly, a wave of tobacco control policy action is cropping up across the EU. A number of member states have ratcheted up their control measures in recent years, including the Netherlands, which was lauded by the WHO last July for becoming the fourth country in the world—and the first in Europe—to have implemented all six “MPOWER” measures, identified as the most cost-effective and high-impact tobacco control policies.

Yet while measures such as tobacco price rises represent a part of the solution, meaningful progress on driving down smoking rates will remain elusive as long as the illicit tobacco trade remains rampant.

While Big Tobacco continues to erroneously pin the blame for illicit trade spikes on taxation policies and domestic counterfeit manufacturing, a closer look reveals an entirely different picture in which the tobacco industry is anything but an innocent bystander.

Dispelling Big Tobacco myths

According to tobacco control NGOs, France’s illicit market is primarily being fuelled by legal cross-border purchases and smuggling – a direct consequence of the tobacco industry intentionally oversupplying small countries bordering larger markets with higher cigarette prices.

French MP Frédéric Valletoux, a member of the Horizons party and the majority Renaissance/Renew coalition, recently highlighted that of the 18,000 tonnes of illicit tobacco smoked in France annually – accounting for as much as 17% of overall consumption – the 650 tonnes of seized counterfeit cigarettes represent just the tip of the iceberg. What’s more, France’s illicit tobacco trade burns a hole of between €3-5 billion in public coffers every year, depriving public health services of vital funds; while France’s tobacconists, led by Philippe Coy, lose some €400 million a year.

Given this reality, some policymakers are recognising the need to adapt its anti-smoking policies, with previous Minister Delegate for Public Accounts Thomas Cazenave actively exploring the cross-border purchase issue to ensure that French citizens purchase cigarettes in France at the legal price to maximise the smoking reduction impact of the country’s taxation policies. Cazenave recently met with Valletoux, whose legislative proposal to tackle the cross-border tobacco trade – notably by imposing country quotas on the tobacco industry based on national consumption levels – has garnered the backing of a dozen MPs, also from the Renew coalition in Brussels and the Horizons party founded by Édouard Philippe, a likely candidate in the next French presidential election.

The way forward in Brussels?

Before the French government’s reshuffle, Valletoux and then-Minister Cazenave’s cabinet set their sights on similar legislation in Brussels, with the former rightly noting that “if France takes this path alone, it will not prevent cross-border” trade, while adding that his country “must lead by example.” While Cazenave’s return for a second term as Public Accounts Minister currently hangs in the balance –– the former remains in a reasonably strong position to retrieve his post according to local media.

The EU’s forthcoming revision process for its tobacco control policies provides a key opportunity to develop a strong cross-border trade proposal and rein in the tobacco industry’s market manipulation. Yet Brussels will need to take meaningful action against the latter’s lobbying efforts, which have long prevented these types of measures. Particular concerns have popped up over the tender process for the EU’s tobacco tracking system, with a large cross-party group of MEPs led by French politician Pierre Larrouturou (S&D) tabling a parliamentary question for oral answer about the “opaque” process by which Dentsu, a company with known ties to the tobacco industry as highlighted by research from the University of Bath, was selected, and whether there was improper conflict of interest in the case of Jan Hoffman, who had worked on tobacco traceability at DG SANTE before being hired by Dentsu in 2020. In late December, European Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly confirmed that the Commission had largely failed to effectively tackle Big Tobacco’s shadowy influence in Brussels.

In response, the Commission has encouragingly indicated that it will launch a probe into the exposure of its public health and tobacco control policies to industry interests. Accompanying the investigation, O’Reilly has notably called for the Commission to boost transparency of meetings with industry representatives, while bolstering the process for evaluating the necessity of these meetings, in line with WHO requirements.

Through this combination of transparency and tobacco control measures, the EU and its member states would accelerate progress on their ‘smoke-free generation’ ambitions, ensuring that policies target the actual sources of Europe’s illicit trade while countering Big Tobacco’s false narratives. Moving forward, the bloc’s leaders will need to work closely together to turn the tide and shield their public health initiatives from industry interference.

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