Mayyada Abdel Salam: Vaping – a growing concern in Estonia that requires a different approach

Mayyada Abdel Salam, a columnist based in Estonia, writes that the current approach towards regulating e-cigarettes in Estonia is misguided; rather than focusing on limiting access, the government should prioritise promoting healthy lifestyles.

In recent years, vaping has become a major concern among young people globally, leading governments to regulate or ban the product. In Estonia, 24,100 people use e-cigarettes, and while their sale is permitted, the use of e-cigarettes in public and their promotion, sponsorship and advertisement are restricted by law.

On 15 November 2022, Peep Peterson, the Estonian social affairs minister, pledged to implement measures to limit minors’ access to tobacco products, including disposable and flavoured e-cigarettes. However, the promised measures are unlikely to be effective in combating the vaping problem.

The previous ban on purchasing flavoured e-liquids in 2019 was ineffective and only resulted in a surge of tobacco smuggling and an increase in counterfeit cigarette factories in the outskirts. The substantial differences in taxes and tariffs between EU and non-EU countries result in tobacco smuggling being one of the most prevalent illicit activities.

For instance, in 2015, approximately 20% of the cigarettes smuggled into Europe were brought in through municipalities that share a border with Russia, Belarus and Moldova. It is not anticipated that the promised measures will fully address the social problems and concerns arising from vaping. Instead, they may lead to a significant increase in the black market, making it easier for young people and adults to access the product.

Vaping. Photo by e-liquids on Unsplash.

Treating adults like children shows no significant progress

The European Union has been treating adults as if they were children, mostly framed under the guise of “public health”, but this approach has seen little to no significant progress towards its original goal. Estonia, despite its numerous unsuccessful attempts to regulate e-cigarette use, still has high vaping rates and was ranked third in the 2019 Nanny State Index as one of the most expensive countries for food, beverage and tobacco consumption.

It is important to note that the government has more pressing issues to focus on. Obesity, for instance, has become the biggest health threat in Estonia. According to the World Health Organisation, 53.7% of Estonian adults over 20 years old are overweight and 20.6% are obese.

The projections for 2030 estimate that 35% of men and 22% of women will be obese. This has resulted in calls for the implementation of sugar or fat taxes. However, a more effective and less paternalistic solution would be the promotion of programmes that encourage healthy diets and physical activity, along with discounts and tax incentives for purchasing vegetables.

In Europe, the idea of liberty revolves around four key freedoms that regulate the flow of goods, people, services and capital within the EU. This is considered the pinnacle accomplishment of the European unity effort and EU governments should maintain consistency with these freedoms when formulating and executing policies. It is unfortunate to see the high prevalence of teenage smoking today, but it must be remembered that the decision to smoke lies with families, not with governments.

The sale of e-cigarettes is allowed, but the law restricts their use in public and advertising, promotion and sponsorship. A text-only health warning is required to cover 30 percent of the front and back of e-cigarette packaging.

Vaping. Photo by Vapeclubmy on Unsplash.

The government should avoid paternalistic policies

Only tobacco and menthol flavours are permitted, and the sale of e-cigarettes is prohibited to people under the age of 18. Flavoured e-liquids have been banned for purchase from outside Estonia since 2019, although initially it was not clear whether the ban applied to flavoured additives sold separately, according to ERR media reports.

The current approach towards regulating e-cigarettes in Estonia is misguided and may have unintended consequences. Rather than focusing on limiting access to the product, the government should prioritise promoting healthy lifestyles through education and incentives. Vaping is a personal choice that should be left up to the individual and their family to decide.

The EU’s focus on freedom should extend to this issue and the government should avoid paternalistic policies that could fuel the black market and make it easier for minors to access e-cigarettes. It is time for the government to re-evaluate its stance on e-cigarettes and prioritise evidence-based solutions that will have a lasting impact on public health.

The focus should be on educating and empowering individuals to make informed choices about their own health, rather than simply trying to restrict access to products. The EU’s commitment to freedom and unity should extend to this issue, and Estonian officials should work to promote a balanced and effective approach towards e-cigarettes.

The opinions in this article are those of the author.

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