European Commission proposes moves to increase tax on cigarettes and reduce influence of tobacco industry

BMJ 2008; 337 doi: (Published 17 July 2008) Cite this as: BMJ 2008;337:a873
  1. Rory Watson
  1. 1Brussels

    The European Commission has proposed increasing the minimum rate of excise duty on cigarettes by 50% as part of its wider public health strategy of discouraging smoking in the 27 member bloc.

    Announcing the initiative this week, Laszlo Kovacs, the Taxation Commissioner, said: “Today’s proposal supports the EU policy to reduce tobacco consumption and narrow the differences in price levels of tobacco products within the EU.”

    He quoted the World Bank, which maintains that price increases in tobacco products are the most effective way of preventing smoking, especially among young people who are generally more responsive to higher prices than their elders. The commission pointed out that a 10% price increase could reduce cigarette consumption in high income countries by 4% on average.

    Under the proposal, the current minimum excise duty of €64 (£51, $100) per 1000 cigarettes would rise to €90 by 2014. The increase would not lead to any changes in the United Kingdom, which already has the most expensive cigarettes in Europe—a packet of 20 cigarettes costs €8.12. Nor would the increase affect Ireland, where a packet of 20 cigarettes costs €7.45, or France (€5.30), or Germany (€4.71).

    But the effect, on both prices and smoking habits, would be considerable among the European Union’s central and eastern European members where a packet of 20 cigarettes often costs less than €2. The commission estimates that in Poland the 47% price increase that would result could cut consumption by one fifth.

    By presenting the proposal, the commission is taking a calculated gamble because any changes to the existing rules, which go back some 30 years, must be agreed unanimously by all 27 EU governments, some of which dislike Brussels’ interference in fiscal matters.

    But Kovacs is hoping that the prospect of continued high tax revenues coupled with a fall in the public health costs of tobacco related diseases may be a sufficient incentive to win the governments’ support.

    Pressure on the tobacco industry is also coming from another quarter as measures are being put in place to implement the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control—the world’s first international public health treaty.

    In the coming months, the 157 countries that have ratified the convention, will develop guidelines to transpose into national legislation the basic principle set out in Article 5.3 that, when implementing public health policies related to tobacco control, authorities shall “act to protect these policies from commercial and other vested interests of the tobacco industry in accordance with national law.”

    The Brussels based Smokefree Partnership, which includes Cancer Research UK and the European Heart Network, also set out this week the features it believes the guidelines should contain. These include limiting engagement with the tobacco industry to the absolute minimum and conducting any communication electronically rather than face to face.

    Androula Vassiliou, the EU Health Commissioner, promised the partnership that she would not accept any invitation from the tobacco industry, or those working to further its interests, during her time in office.


    Cite this as: BMJ 2008;337:a873

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