Usually praised by the EU for its highly competitive economy, Finland came under attack by a group of free-market think tanks on Wednesday (10 May) for pushing “paternalistic lifestyle policies” aimed at curbing consumption of tobacco, alcohol and sugary drinks.
Now in its second edition, the Nanny State Index 2017, published on Wednesday (10 May), offers “a league table of the worst places in the European Union to eat, drink, smoke and vape.”
“The most heavy-handed countries – Finland, the UK and Ireland – all have very high taxes on alcohol and tobacco, as well as severe smoking bans,” the 2017 edition says.
At the other end of the table, the index lists the Czech Republic and Germany as places where taxes on alcohol and tobacco are “modest” and where governments “do not try to control their citizens’ diets, and treat vapers and smokers with respect”.
The index is produced by Epicenter, a group of six European think tanks promoting free-market policies.
Unsurprisingly, Finland topped the index for the second consecutive year.
“Finland has an almost impregnable lead at the top of the table thanks to its negative approach to e-cigarettes, its tax on soft drinks and its harsh temperance laws which include a near-total ban on alcohol advertising and a state-controlled alcohol monopoly,” Epicenter stated on its website.
Hungary, which introduced a controversial ‘fat tax’ in 2011, Sweden, France, and Latvia are the other countries singled out on top of the index for their “paternalistic” lifestyle policies.
“If you want to use the Nanny State Index as a travel guide, there are separate league tables for food, alcohol, tobacco and vaping below, so you can pick your holiday according to your preferences,” Epicenter wrote.
The index did not mention that Europeans have the highest per-capita consumption of alcohol and drinking causes nearly one in 10 cases of ill health and premature death, according to EU data.
Harmful and hazardous alcohol consumption is the third largest risk factor for ill health in the EU, responsible for 195,000 deaths each year and accounting for 12% of male and 2% of female premature mortality, according to EU figures.
Meanwhile, 30% of the region’s population smokes – killing almost 700,000 people annually – and 59% of Europe’s population is overweight or obese. Sugary drinks are largely seen as contributors to obesity, which in turn increases the risk of developing heart disease, diabetes, stroke and cancer.
EU at the bottom
The European Union is not featured in the index, which rates countries, not international organisations. But if it were, the EU would appear near the bottom, said Christopher Snowdon, from the UK-based Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), one of Epicenter’s six members.
“This is really not about the EU,” said Snowdon, who spoke at a EURACTIV event on Wednesday (10 May). “Countries can score badly on one criteria and better on another criteria,” he added, seeking to nuance the findings of the index.
Ortwin Schulte, head of division for health policy at the German permanent representation to the European Union in Brussels, agreed, emphasising that the EU had “very limited competences” on health policies, and would probably feature at the bottom of the index. This is due to “huge differences” in mentality between member states, Schulte said, adding the EU’s role on health policies should be minimal.
“We really don’t need the EU passing laws on…how a packet of cigarettes should look like,” Snowdon said in reference to tobacco packaging rules which went into force across the EU last year.
“There are some efficiencies to be had from member states having a certain amount of uniformity. But that doesn’t mean paternalistic regulation from the European Union should be forced out on member states if they don’t want it.”
Tax: “A plausible policy” to curb alcohol, tobacco
A novelty, this year’s edition of the index sought to determine whether fat taxes or tobacco control measures had a positive impact on public health outcomes. But Epicenter says there is “little evidence of this”, adding it found “no correlation between Nanny State Index scores and life expectancy”.
Snowdon admitted however that taxation could be effective in reducing consumption of those products.
“Tax seems to be the most plausible policy that could reduce consumption” of alcohol and tobacco, Snowdon said in response to a question by EURACTIV on the effectiveness of taxation. “If the objective is to reduce consumption, then increasing price can be effective,” Snowdon said.
“I’m not claiming that every single Nanny State measure ever tried is a desperate failure,” Snowdon continued, saying “some are counter-productive” but can be “balanced by others” that meet their health policy goals. Still, “a lot of these policies don’t seem to be achieving these objectives,” Snowdon said.
If the ranking were to be updated today, Lithuania would probably jump from eighth to second place, Snowdon said, because of the recent policies it adopted on alcohol.
Lithuania is among the countries with the highest per capita consumption of alcohol in Europe, according to the World Health Organisation.
Among the proposed measures recently tabled by the Lithuanian government are an increase of the legal age for buying alcoholic beverages (from 18 to 20) and a full ban on alcohol advertising from January 2018. In addition, the government wants to impose additional trade hour limitations on alcohol retail outlets.
One Lithuanian participant at the event complained about the proposed measures, saying they went too far. “This is f***ing nuts to put it mildly,” said the person who spoke on condition of anonymity.