In a momentous legislative development, the Riigikogu, the national parliament of Estonia, has recently voted in favour of passing a bill which will increase excise duties levied on alcohol and tobacco products. Unfortunately, past attempts to eradicate smoking or reduce alcohol consumption through such measures have had limited to no success.

Due to the nature of addiction, entrenched social habits, and individual preferences, introducing punitive new consumption taxes, often referred to as "sin taxes," out of a desire to eliminate harmful behaviours like smoking does not work and will do more harm than good. Countless case studies have shown that such taxes primarily result in making smokers or drinkers financially burdened without yielding significant improvements in public health.

Take France, for example, where approximately 30% of the population continues to smoke, as per a survey conducted by the Povaddo organisation. Despite the efforts of the French government to regulate smoking, including anti-smoking campaigns, tax hikes on cigarettes, and the implementation of a law banning smoking in public spaces in 2006, smoking rates have remained persistently high.

Addressing the health impacts of smoking and alcohol consumption necessitates a comprehensive and multi-faceted strategy which extends beyond taxation alone. Financial disincentives have a limited role to play, if any. In fact, in the context of an inflation and cost of living crisis, imposing new consumption taxes on people who are already struggling to make ends meet looks like a poor decision.

Instead, governments should pursue a more holistic approach encompassing education, public awareness campaigns, access to support services, and a nuanced understanding of individual motivations. This is crucial for promoting healthier choices and reducing the prevalence of these habits while safeguarding individual choice. By considering alternative measures and learning from past experiences, governments can better tailor their efforts to create a lasting impact on public health outcomes.

An approach that places consumers at the forefront and focuses on harm reduction could be a highly effective strategy for the Estonian government to consider. In this regard, one significant step would be to reassess the existing restrictions on tobacco products, particularly disposable, flavoured e-cigarettes.

By re-evaluating the limits imposed on these products, the government can demonstrate its commitment to addressing public health concerns while acknowledging the evolving landscape of smoking alternatives. Embracing harm reduction principles entails recognizing that certain products, such as disposable, flavoured e-cigarettes, are less harmful alternatives to traditional tobacco consumption. In fact, research has found they are as much as 95% safer overall and very unlikely to cause cancer when compared to ordinary cigarettes.

By lifting restrictions on these products rather than imposing new taxes, the Estonian government would align itself with emerging evidence that suggests such harm reduction strategies can have a positive impact. Acknowledging the potential of e-cigarettes as a less harmful alternative to traditional tobacco products can provide smokers with viable alternatives and encourage them to transition away from more detrimental habits. E-cigarettes have a 74% success rate in helping smokers quit, which is much higher than other methods.

Additionally, removing unnecessary barriers can foster a climate of consumer choice and autonomy, empowering individuals to make informed decisions about their own health. For instance, vaping offers notable advantages in aiding smoking cessation. By eliminating the combustion process, it minimises exposure to detrimental chemicals and toxins, making it an effective tool for quitting smoking.

Consumer protection and rigorous oversight should remain paramount, with measures in place to prevent underage access and monitor potential risks associated with e-cigarette use, but that should not stop the Estonian government from using vaping technology to help its smokers improve their health. By adopting a harm reduction approach which values consumer preferences and safety, Estonia can position itself at the forefront of progressive tobacco regulation while promoting healthier alternatives for its citizens.

This article was authored by Mayyada Abdel Salam. Mayyada is a fellow with Young Voices Europe based in Estonia. She is a legal practitioner currently studying for an MBA.