This article is part of our special report Regulating consumers?.
Consumers make hundreds of choices every day, some of which imply weighing the tradeoffs of joy versus long term health. These are highly subjective decisions, and in a free society adult consumers should have the right to make these choices and not have them dictated to them by public health tsars, writes Fred Roeder.
Fred Cyrus Roeder is Managing Director at the Consumer Choice Center (CCC), an organisation fighting for consumer choice in over 100 countries across the globe.
Europeans live in an age of access to information and education unrivalled in history.
Digital services offer consumers the opportunity to have more information about products they consider buying. While this leads to more consumer empowerment and more-informed decisions, public health advocates keep pushing governments across Europe to implement stricter limitations of people’s lifestyle choices.
Such limitations of choice are not just bad for consumers, but also often infringe on the basic principles of the Four Freedoms within the European Union.
A series of recently introduced bills shows how several EU member states have shifted more and more towards paternalism and governments have stopped trusting their own citizens’ abilities to make decisions on what to eat, drink, and smoke.
The Estonian Minister of Health Jevgeni Ossinovski has raised the prospect of rethinking duty free limits for alcohol transported from one member state to another. This can be seen as a direct attack on the Single Market depriving European consumers of one of the main benefits of the EU. In the light of Estonia’s upcoming EU Presidency, his Ministry tried to qualify his and other statements. But it’s not enough.
The Lithuanian parliament just voted to increase the legal drinking age to 20 and the Minister of Health openly hopes that neighboring countries will follow suit. Lithuania’s parliamentarians seem to reject hard data from the U.S. showing that their drinking age of 21 correlates with the highest rate of binge-drinking in the world. Unintended consequences of such policies are being silenced under the noise of public health claims.
More and more European countries introduce branding bans for tobacco products making labels and brands a figment of the past. Policy-makers ignore the facts that branding bans are mainly a stimulus program for organised crime syndicates who sell counterfeited cigarettes, along with the fact that smoking rates have not been affected in Australia – one of the first countries to introduce this ban.
For its part, the Irish government plans to more strictly regulate to regulate alcoholic beverages. Minimum prices, advertising bans, higher labeling requirements, and so-called ‘Booze Burkas’ separating alcohol from any other products in stores are part of the government’s action package against alcohol. Driving up the price of alcohol and reducing brand visibility will drive more consumers to the black market.
This is an experiment that has been tried in countries such as the U.S. and the Soviet Union before and failed. In each case, it led to the growth of organised crime and lower quality products for consumers with devastating consequences for their health.
Prominent public health groups massively lobby the European Commission and Parliament to support more paternalistic policies regardless of whether they violate the Single Market. And they most often do.
Paradoxically, most of these groups’ funding come from the very EU institutions they lobby. Institute of Economic Affairs lifestyle editor Christopher Snowdon calls this the “EU sockpuppets” scheme. That such organisations would take public funding and support initiatives that reduce choice and increase prices for ordinary consumers is a disgrace in our system.
In order to stop the trend of growing paternalism, the public health lobbies’ efforts need to be balanced by a broad alliance of consumers from all over Europe. As populist forces around the world demonstrate, voters who disagree with the approach of governments will eventually grow in strength and power. Demonstrating to policy makers that those who limit choice will eventually face their consequences in elections is incredibly important in that case.
Consumers make hundreds of choices every day. Some of these include weighing the tradeoffs of joy versus long term health. These are highly individual and subjective decisions, and in a free society adult consumers should have the right to make these choices and not have them dictated to them by public health tsars. If we want to make our societies prosperous and include more options for everyday people, then we must embrace consumer choice. The fate of our institutions may indeed count on it.