Regular readers won’t be surprised to hear that Britain is one of the worst nanny states in Europe and the new edition of the Epicenter Nanny State Index proves it. The league table of the best and worst places in the European Union to eat, drink, smoke and vape, which I edit, has been charting the slide towards coercive paternalism since 2016. There is little good news to report this year. The UK has slipped from second place to fourth, but only because a flurry of anti-vaping and anti-alcohol activity in Estonia and Lithuania has led to those countries leapfrogging us in the table. It is certainly not because of any liberalisation in the UK where a tax on sugary drinks and plain packaging for tobacco has been added to sky-high sin taxes since the last edition was published.
To be fair, there has been precious little liberalisation anywhere else either. Nine EU countries now have taxes on sugary and/or artificially sweetened soft drinks. Eleven countries have taxes on e-cigarette fluid, and fifteen have a total or near-total ban on e-cigarette advertising. Twenty countries have some legal restrictions on e-cigarette use, including fourteen where vaping is banned wherever smoking is banned.
There has been less movement in tobacco policy since the upheaval of the EU Tobacco Products Directive (which came into full effect in May 2017). Every country except Germany has a total or near-total ban on tobacco advertising and most countries have extensive smoking bans. Even the traditionally smoker-friendly Czech Republic has capitulated to the tobacco control lobby, introducing a full smoking ban in May 2017.
The big temperance victories have come in Lithuania – where all alcohol advertising is now banned and you have to be be twenty years old to buy a drink – and in Scotland where minimum pricing was brought in last year. Wales is expected to introduce a 50p minimum price in the autumn and Ireland may follow suit next year. The Irish also have a package of tobacco-style anti-alcohol policies to be getting on with, including a retail display ban, an extensive advertising ban, and cancer warnings on bottles.
Whether it is food, drink, vaping or smoking, the lifestyle regulators have the wind in their sails. Consumers have had so few reasons to celebrate in the last two years that I can quickly list them all:
After introducing a tax on wine for the first time in 2016, Greece’s supreme administrative court declared it unlawful in September 2018. It was repealed the following January.
In March 2018, the new Austrian government cancelled its predecessors plans to introduce a smoking ban.
The Slovakian government recently legalised domestic distilling, albeit with strict regulations.
In November 2018, the Italian government slashed the tax on e-cigarette fluid from €0.38 per ml to €0.08 per ml, thereby cutting the price of an average bottle of vape juice by €3.
Also in November 2018, the Danish government froze tobacco duty and lowered duty on beer and wine.
These isolated examples represent the sum total of victories against the nanny state juggernaut since 2017. In Britain, the only sliver of good news is that we continue to lead Europe in our evidence-based approach to e-cigarettes. While many countries have gold-plated the EU’s anti-vaping laws by taxing e-cigarette fluid and banning e-cigarette advertising, organisations like Public Health England have actively encouraged smokers to switch to them. It is no coincidence that Britain now has the second lowest smoking rate in the EU.
You might assume, if you are slightly credulous, that the countries which embrace nanny state policies most enthusiastically have the best health outcomes. They don’t. The war on fun is all pain and no gain. As the graphs below show, the countries which regulate tobacco more heavily do not have lower rates of smoking, those which regulate alcohol more heavily do not have lower rates of drinking, and those with the highest scores in the Nanny State Index overall do not have longer life expectancies.
So here we have a set of policies that restrict freedom and make us poorer while failing to achieve their stated objective. It would be nice to think that British politicians view the UK’s high ranking in the Nanny State Index as a source of national shame. Alas, I suspect that most of them will merely be disappointed that we have dropped out of the top three.
It is all rather depressing. Even the traditionally tolerant Dutch are in the process of putting a raft of paternalistic policies through parliament. Influential interest groups funded by billionaire activists, including the EAT campaign and Bloomberg Philanthropies, are pushing to introduce tobacco-style regulation of food and soft drinks. The Baltic States have been encouraged by the EU’s Health Commissioner to tax sugar. In Ireland there is talk of following up 2018’s Public Health (Alcohol) Act with a similar law to tackle food. In Britain there is talk of a ‘pudding tax’ to go alongside the clamp down on so-called ‘junk food’. We can also expect a growing clamour for a meat tax in the years ahead.
We can’t even blame the European Union for it. The EU has some petty and counterproductive policies on tobacco and e-cigarettes, but it cannot be held responsible for regressive taxation, draconian smoking bans and excessive regulation of alcohol and food, nor for most of the nanny state laws that affect anything else. The gulf between the most liberal country at the bottom of the Index (Germany) and the most heavy-handed country at the top (Finland) shows how much latitude member states have. Treating your citizens like children is, by and large, a domestic policy choice. So far, it has been a choice that British politicians, whatever colour their rosette, have been happy to make.