Concerning Anti-Tobacco Harm Reduction Moves in Nordic Countries, Despite Sweden’s Success

Despite the outstanding results achieved by Sweden's progressive THR strategy at reducing local smoking rates, neighbouring Finland and Denmark are choosing to set contrasting outdated measures.

Finland has announced plans to increase taxes on vape liquids and nicotine pouches, with the latter resulting in a price increase of approximately 2.5 Euros per packet. The measure aims to bring smokeless nicotine products under tobacco taxation, and is of course considered a significant step backwards for tobacco harm reduction (THR) efforts.

The Finnish government’s proposal to increase these taxes has been met with criticism by smoking cessation experts. The World Vapers’ Alliance (WVA) has highlighted that the move hinders harm reduction efforts, as it reduces the price gap between cigarettes and vapes, potentially discouraging smokers from switching to the less harmful options. The alliance warned that higher taxes disproportionately affect low-income groups with higher smoking rates, exacerbating social inequalities.

Similarly, the Danish government coalition is developing a package of 30 measures to reduce alcohol and nicotine use, including higher taxes on nicotine products and a flavour ban.

Prohibitive measures have always failed
The WVA has once again expressed concern about potential negative outcomes of the measures, such as the growth of illicit markets and a potential shift back to smoking. The Alliance emphasizes the importance of risk-based regulation, arguing that prohibitive measures are never effective. Landl reiterated that price and variety are crucial for smokers to quit, and banning flavours or increasing prices could hinder adult smokers’ cessation efforts.

The Alliance highlighted that both Finland and Denmark should learn from Sweden’s successful harm reduction policies, where recent initiatives involved lowering the local tax on snus and nicotine pouches, while significantly raising cigarette tax. Landl concluded that the focus should be on creating more opportunities for people to quit smoking rather than restricting them.

Sadly, other European countries also seem to be headed towards prohibition. Last October, the Latvian government approved a set of amendments to the local Excise Tax Law, including a phased increase in the tax on e-liquids and alternative nicotine products.

This increase on e-liquids and their components will equate to a 21% raise in the years 2024, 2025, and 2026, while the one on other alternative products such as nicotine pouches, will be raised by 10%. The bill will also increase the excise tax rates of heated tobacco products and combustible cigarettes by 5% and 5.6% respectively per year.

Eastern Europe is headed in the same direction?
In March 2022, Latvia’s parliament passed amendments in the second reading, introducing a proposed age limit for the purchase of tobacco and nicotine products, as well as a ban on flavoured vaping products. According to 2019 Eurostat data Latvia has the third highest smoking rates in Europe at 22.1%.

Similarly, the Hungarian Government has recently announced harsh measures on vapes and other smokeless alternatives, dismissing the significant benefits of the products for smoking cessation. In Hungary, harm reduction strategies like promoting vapes and other reduced-risk alternatives are not are not well received, however the new measures go a step further.

One of the measures mentioned includes setting a maximum nicotine content of 17 mg per consumption unit on nicotine pouches, aiming to reduce their appeal. THR experts have long argued that reducing the nicotine concentrations only leads to users having to consume more in order to absorb the same amount they are normally used to.

Discussing Hungary’s imminent measures, the WVA reiterated that this rigid approach contradicts the widely accepted scientific consensus about the use of safer nicotine alternatives in order to reduce harm. Moreover it also seems to intentionally undermine the established success achieved by countries like Sweden and the UK, in reducing local smoking rates to record lows.