Although the nanny state is ever-present in our daily lives, many people don’t realise that they are being nannied. Tobacco, alcohol and sugary drinks taxes, vape flavour bans, plain packaging and ad bans – to name a few – are examples of the overreaching hand of the nanny state. Despite being riddled with unintended consequences, these policies have perforated Europe. The current trends point towards more nanny state in Europe – not less.
The nanny state assumes that the relationship between the state and consumers is parent-versus-child. The parent, in this model, is intrinsically strict to prevent the child from making sinful choices. These include drinking alcohol, smoking, eating sweets, and consuming cannabis. The scope of the nanny state interventions has a propensity to grow, if not kept at bay.
Vaping and sweets consumption are some of the most recent targets of the European nanny state. In February 2021, the European Commission presented Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan, which outlines a set of lifestyle policies for decades to come. The Plan’s goals were to expand taxation to “novel tobacco products” (including vaping), extend the coverage of indoor and outdoor smoking bans to include e-cigarettes, and impose a broad flavour ban. The Plan also stressed the need to fight childhood obesity in the EU through labelling and school dieting schemes.
These pursuits have also been reinforced by the emergence of the European Parliament intergroup on obesity and member states’ initiatives, such as the Dutch and Irish vape flavour ban and sugar taxes in Poland and Romania, to name a few. Beyond the European Union, Ukraine has sought to ban vape flavours and introduce a sugar tax. Iceland is looking to regulate nicotine. The UK has intensified its anti-obesity regulatory campaign by banning junk food ads on the tube.
Let us start with vaping. Vaping devices, or e-cigarettes, were invented in response to the failure of conventional tobacco control measures to tackle smoking effectively. The European crusade against tobacco, spearheaded by the World Health Organisation (WHO) through tobacco taxes, ad bans, and plain packaging, has turned out to be a disaster. It has only boosted illicit tobacco, without substantially dragging down the smoking rate. In the UK, for example, where the price of cigarettes is the highest in Europe, tobacco was found to be the most reported counterfeit good in 2019/20. In Ireland, the situation is hardly better. Smoking-induced cancer takes nearly 700,000 lives every year in the EU.
The European nanny state’s obsession with complete smoking abstinence has blinded it from the benefits of vaping. Vaping is 95% less harmful than smoking. The risk of cancer from e-cigarettes compared to that from smoking is less than half a percent. Vape flavour bans personify the devastating ills of restricting vaping. By using flavoured e-liquids, smokers are 230 percent more likely to quit smoking than if using tobacco-flavoured ones. A 2020 survey in Canada, England, and the US found that in response to vape flavour bans, “28.3% would find a way to get their banned flavours, 17.1% would stop vaping and smoke instead.” Furthermore, similar to tobacco, the overregulation of vaping leads to a spike in illicit trade.
By treating vaping like tobacco, the European nanny state is shooting itself in the foot. The consequences of these parent-style regulations is that the Dutch vape flavour ban alone will drive 260,000 Dutch vapers back to smoking. However, not all is doom and gloom. The UK and France are the only outliers in Europe to have recognised the benefits of vaping and have seen reduction in smoking rates.
The unsuccessful attempts to tackle smoking through bans in the EU warn against further paternalistic regulations to cut childhood obesity. In April 2021, Members of the European Parliament debated the possibility of introducing EU-wide rules to restrict junk food ads targeting children. It was agreed that the rules would need to be revised. As the EU is heavily reliant on the WHO’s restrictive recommendations on lifestyle, the odds are hardly optimistic.
Junk food advertising is a tempting target for the nanny state. The link between advertising — particularly TV ads — and childhood obesity is weak, and most of the current conclusions are based on studies from decades ago. A study from Quebec from 40 years ago is one of them.
As the UK example shows, ad bans remove only 1.7 calories from kids’ daily diets. The sugar tax, widely advocated for the WHO, is hardly effective either. One study found that 62% of UK shoppers claim to have not changed their consumption behaviour in any way post-sugar tax. Furthermore, a study in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, conducted from January to December 2013, found that higher prices for dietary/low-sugar beverages led to increased beer, cider, and wine sales. Again, the nanny state is being the worst enemy of its intentions.
Although the prospects of less nannying in Europe are grim, European consumers don’t want the government to make decisions for them. A 2021 polling commissioned by the Consumer Choice Center found that 59% of European consumers agree that the European Union often over-regulates at the expense of European consumers. A staggering 69% think that the government shouldn’t restrict their freedom to choose. The European nanny state thinks of itself as helpful, but it does more harm than good.
Be it vaping, obesity or alcohol, the nanny state in Europe and beyond was never given carte blanche to regulate our lifestyles. The notion that we need the state to protect us from ourselves is highly presumptuous and immoral. Besides standing on shaky ethical grounds, the nanny state creates inefficiencies and fails to achieve its benevolent goals. Looking into the future in Europe, it is highly likely that the EU and member states will come up with more ways to regulate our lives, but, as consumers, it is pivotal that we notice these regulations and speak up against them. Quoting a famous Marx-Mises rap song, “If we’re not fit to run our own lives, why would you expect our votes to be wise?”