Germany is a ‘developing country’ when it comes to tobacco regulation, expert says


Despite e-cigarette use leading to deaths in the US, the WHO's opinion on smoking does not seem to interest Germany so much.[Shutterstock] [Shutterstock]

While Germany is being branded a ‘developing country’ in terms of tobacco regulation, experts warn that a new wave of cancer illnesses may be related to the consumption of E-cigarettes. EURACTIV Germany reports.

In the US, e-cigarette consumption has been linked to thirteen deaths and 850 people have already suffered from lung disease.

However, something similar could be brewing in Germany, the lung specialist and current president of the European Respiratory Society (ERS), Tobias Welte, told EURACTIV.

“As opposed to the US, Germany left products such as Iqos and Juul completely uncontrolled. There is not even a nationwide database where such cases of illness could be documented as is the case in the US,” Welte added.

Electronic cigarettes still bitterly divide stakeholders

There is general agreement that smoking is one of the worst things one can do for one’s health. But when it comes to alternatives like electronic cigarettes, the debate continues to divide stakeholders and policymakers.

A ‘developing country’

The expert even considers Germany to be a ‘developing country’ when it comes to tobacco regulation.

Research shows that no German politician seems to care that important reports of the World Health Organisation (WHO) are not being published.

Experts such as Professor Welte have criticised the lack of tobacco regulations in Germany, which are in force in the public sector and the workplace.

Other countries, such as Australia, are far ahead in this respect. The city of Melbourne has just imposed a complete smoking ban on its main shopping street to protect its citizens from passive smoking.

EU Commission accused of ignoring science on e-cigarettes

The European Commission’s recent statement comparing electronic cigarettes to “poison” has prompted a strong reaction from stakeholders, who accused the EU executive of disregarding scientific evidence.

ERS Lung Science Conference

The ERS Lung Science Conference gathered 20,000 medical specialists and other experts from all over the world in Madrid recently. At the conference, experts such as Welte were invited to discuss the effects of smoking.

“In Germany, the protection of the population has no lobby, and the influence of the tobacco industry is too dominant. In the US, England, New Zealand and Australia, tobacco regulation is much more advanced,” Welte said.

Those who visited the Madrid trade fair were welcomed with a better coffee than is usually expected. And attendees also received tickets with barcodes that give them access to cancer treatments, as well as therapies to quit smoking.

In other words, pharmaceutical companies have a vested interest in selling drugs to treat cancer, but also to help smokers quit.

Industry influence 

According to research by Der Spiegel, the influential “Aktionsbündnis Nichtrauchen”, an alliance of 15 institutions such as the German Medical Association or the German Cancer Research Centre, for example, have secretly accepted donations from the pharmaceutical industry in the past.

Industry interest is clear, as they are marketing plasters, chewing gum and sprays which are supposed to help people stop. And a little influence never harmed anyone.

However, nicotine substitutes are competing with e-cigarettes and tobacco vaporisers, which are now considered by many experts to be a more effective way to get people to quit smoking.

But lung specialist Welte is not convinced.

“Smoking is an addiction. It doesn’t make sense to replace one addiction with another,” Welte said.

World Health Organisation and ‘big pharma’

Could the pharmaceutical industry be attempting to influence the World Health Organisation (WHO)?

For instance, the WHO’s report drafted by a group of experts on tobacco policies and typically published every two years is long overdue. The report, whose publication was actually scheduled for 11 December 2018, is considered an essential working basis for all tobacco regulators globally.

The content of the report could now be outdated given that the report is based on a meeting of experts that took place in 2017, in Minneapolis.

An NGO representative who wants to remain anonymous said the following:

“Normally, this report should have been published long ago. After all, it contains expertise for day-to-day work. On the subject of the pharmaceutical industry, I can only say that, like the tobacco industry, it is struggling to remain relevant. I’ve never seen anyone take money from them, but of course, they’re already trying to support congresses financially. We have always rejected this in our NGO, and perhaps the Non-Smoking Action Alliance should have done the same…”.

Not a top priority for Germany

But what do German tobacco regulators, who also send politicians to the Conference of the Parties (COP) every two years, make of the non-publication of this crucial report?

After asking a few questions, it became clear that tobacco regulation is not the number one priority.

Germany’s health ministry refused to answer questions and suggested the WHO be contacted directly. However, the WHO’s press office did not reply.

The press office of Germany’s new Drug Commissioner provides us with a link to an old report, dating back to 2018. And following a second inquiry, it was again suggested that the WHO be contacted directly.

The press office apologised, stating that it receives “many other inquiries every day”.

Although e-cigarette use is suspected of leading to deaths in the US, the WHO’s opinion on smoking does not seem to interest Germany so much.

And tobacco experts will already meet next year at COP 9 in The Hague to make recommendations on tobacco regulations worldwide.

While countries such as Australia and New Zealand make cigarettes with astronomical taxes unattractive (a pack cost between €15 and €20), tobacco regulation in Germany continues to lag far behind.

Can e-cigarettes help people quit smoking?

Electronic cigarettes and novel tobacco products have emerged as alternatives to traditional smoking, which is responsible for nearly 700,000 deaths every year in the EU.

A lack of regulation in Germany

In Germany, there has been no increase in tobacco taxes for four years. New vaporisers will still be allowed to advertise. And the Juul e-cigarettes are now becoming quite popular in German schools.

In Germany, e-cigarettes are only subject to value-added-tax and so-called ‘heat-not-burn’ products are taxed like pipe tobacco. Compared with a normal pack of cigarettes, three-quarters of the purchase price goes to the tax coffers.

“We urgently need more taxes on e-cigarettes and other new tobacco products. I would not like to see the consequences of this 30 years down the line. There are no long-term studies on such matters,” Tobias Welte said.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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