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Finland | Europe’s next Bhutan?

03 Mar 2010. Finland’s parliament is presently considering a tobacco act that might eventually ban all use of tobacco products.

With this proposal, it follows in the footsteps of the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, which in 2004 became the world’s first tobacco-free country.
The aim of this act is the cessation of the use of tobacco products that are addictive and include toxic substances,” reads the opening paragraph from the Tobacco Act of 2009, currently being discussed by Finland’s parliament. It is a bill comprising a series of the toughest anti-tobacco legislations known and is part of Finland’s vision of becoming the first non-smoking country in the world. It has gone further than any other country has been prepared to go in Europe and this has certainly caught the attention of the industry.

Finland has been a forerunner in regulation – it banned direct tobacco advertising in 1976 and forbad smoking in work places in 1995. The Tobacco Act was proposed in October 2009 and includes the banning of tobacco product displays and any remnant of brand trademarks.

Retail display bans may be nothing new but on this occasion it will be a blanket ban, where the customer will have to ask at the counter for tobacco products and then choose from a list provided by the retailer. In Finland, tobacco cannot be sold to anyone under 18 and it is also illegal to be in possession of tobacco at that age. Prohibitions on smoking are to be extended to areas where children and young people are present. Smoking in vehicles will also be banned when a minor under 18 is present as well as in joint facilities on housing estates.

The proposal also states that lighting up in hotel rooms will be permitted in only some of the rooms; in addition, smoking at events and conventions that are organised to take place outdoors is also on the blacklist and will be banned.

It does not stop there. Vending machines selling cigarettes will be outlawed and the sale and supplying of snuff is to be illegal. Prison sentences of up to six months will be introduced for the contravention of any of laws regulating tobacco sales and the same maximum sentence will apply to the breaking of prohibitive laws regarding underage smoking.

Many of the initiatives were first discussed openly at a seminar entitled “Smokeless Finland 2040” in June 2009, where Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen spoke to interested parties about putting out cigarettes for the final time.

“We are not saying that smoking is to be forbidden and believe in freedom of choice but it is more of a societal aim, which I think every country should be looking to adopt,” said Kari Paaso, a government official for the Finnish ministry of health. He explained: “This is particularly aimed at youngsters as at the moment 80 per cent of smokers start under the age of 15 and this has to be stopped; as well as this, more people smoke amongst the poorer social classes and we also wish this to end. Of course, we recognise that the tobacco industry is a legitimate business and there are issues of whether it is constitutional to stop people smoking in say outside areas, but we are confident that the bill will become law by the second half of this year.”

This confidence will be bolstered by the ruling government centre-right coalition that has held a healthy majority in the Finnish parliament since the 2007 election and appears to be unequivocally in favour of the Tobacco Act. The industry, which is dominated in Finland by British American Tobacco, Phillip Morris International and Imperial Tobacco, believes the smoke-free goal is unrealistic and constitutional problems need to be resolved.

Industry resistance

Phillip Morris has already filed a complaint with the minister of justice in Finland, as legislation proposing such draconian laws may be infringing on EU directives. Lauri Mäkinen, head of BAT’s corporate and regulatory affairs in Finland, said: “Even though the ministry of social affairs and health does seem to have great confidence in getting rid of smoking by legislation, they seem to be overlooking the fact that, while there is a ban on snus in place, snus is in fact the only tobacco product in Finland which is growing. Smuggling and illicit trade in cigarettes is also illegal in Finland, and therefore the authorities have a full mandate to eliminate it, but still the problem persists and does not seem to be going anywhere. The bill is under review in the parliamentary constitutional committee, and we are waiting to see what the committee’s view is. One more issue is that the arguments of the government seem to say that the objective would mean that, when it comes to tobacco, there is less or no need to honour existing legislation or treaties that relate to tobacco. We think this is just wrong.”

Tobacco companies are willing to accept legislation that has become almost standard across borders globally, such as the prevention of underage smoking and penalties to discourage the sales of tobacco to those under age. Health awareness campaigns and the continuation of them are not greeted with derision by the industry and there is little opposition to existing rules that protect non-smokers from the involuntary intake of smoke in public areas. “We support effective tobacco control laws, such as minimum age laws. Enforcement of minimum age laws and education campaigns has proven to be effective in reducing youth smoking,” confirmed Anne Edwards, director of external communications of Philip Morris International. “What we do not support are ineffective measures, such as the proposed ban on displaying tobacco products in retail outlets. Based on experience from other countries with display bans, such as Iceland, simply hiding products from consumers does not stop people from smoking. All it does is make it difficult for legitimate companies and retailers to sell a legal product to adult smokers.”

Despite the increased zeal to attack tobacco consumption, the industry is still confident that it can operate in the same way that other average size European markets do, in a country where every tobacco product is imported. Like most developed markets, Finland’s consumption rate is expected to fall slightly, according to Euromonitor, and because it is an import-only market, the level of illegal cigarettes is expected to rise.
The recession has not dented the market significantly but has resulted in higher sales of medium- and lower-priced cigarettes, at the expense of the premium-priced brands. However, if the Tobacco Act is passed, with complaints from the industry already filed, there is the potential of a major clash of interests in the near future. Finland’s estimated one million smokers should make the most of their freedoms while they can.

Peter Taberner