Written by Nicole Scholz,
Smoking is the largest preventable cause of death in Europe. In the past decade, EU laws on tobacco additives, advertising and packaging have reinforced efforts to deter people, especially the young, from taking up smoking. The ‘Ex-Smokers are Unstoppable’ campaign has helped many kick the habit. Today, taking their lead from the 2004 Irish ban on smoking in workplaces, diverse actions protect Europeans from breathing in harmful ‘second-hand’ smoke (or ‘passive smoking’) in public venues.
Health risks of active and passive smoking
Eurostat data (2014) show that in the EU, one in every four persons aged 15 or over is a smoker, and that one in five is exposed to ‘second-hand’ smoke coming from lit cigarettes or being exhaled by smokers. Smoking is responsible for about 90 % of lung cancers. It also causes other forms of cancer, including of the mouth, lips, throat, larynx, oesophagus, bladder, kidney, liver and pancreas. It damages the heart and blood circulation, raising the risk of cardiovascular diseases, and can lead to lung conditions, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and pneumonia. Passive smoking increases non-smokers’ risk of developing the same health problems as smokers. Babies and children are particularly vulnerable to its effects. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there is no safe level of exposure to second-hand smoke, and it has been classified as ‘carcinogenic to humans’. Non-smokers breathing in second-hand smoke in the workplace are at a 16-19 % increased risk of developing lung cancer. The risk of acute coronary syndrome is 25-35 % higher among passive smokers, and they also suffer from chronic respiratory diseases, such as asthma, more frequently.
EU action to promote smoke-free environments
The EU’s tobacco policy is mainly aimed at protecting people from the harmful effects of active and passive smoking. The measures range from legislation to awareness-raising, and include, among other things:
- the regulation of tobacco products, for instance as regards packaging, labelling and ingredients, through the Tobacco Products Directive (2014/40), which became applicable in the Member States on 20 May 2016;
- restrictions on tobacco advertising, for example through the Tobacco Advertising Directive (2003/33);
- tax measures and activities against illicit trade, such as the Directive on Excise Duty on Tobacco. The EU also ratified, in 2016, the Protocol to eliminate illicit trade in tobacco products under the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC), a legally binding international treaty that aims to reduce the negative health and economic consequences of tobacco consumption;
- anti-tobacco campaigns, such as ‘Ex-Smokers are Unstoppable’ (2011-2016). It targeted EU smokers aged 25-34 years (almost 28 million people), with over 480 000 benefitting from the iCoach tool;
- limitations on venues where smoking is allowed. These go back to the 2009 Council recommendation on smoke-free environments, which called on Member States to protect their citizens from exposure to tobacco smoke in indoor workplaces, indoor public places, public transport and other public places. Legislation on smoke-free environments is the Member States’ responsibility, so the EU’s role is mainly one of fostering cooperation. A 2013 report on how the recommendation was implemented found that all Member States had adopted measures, albeit to varying extents, but that enforcement was an issue. The report nevertheless showed that actual exposure rates for EU citizens had dropped, and that the positive health effects of smoke-free legislation had been immediate.
A 2014 Eurobarometer survey illustrated that exposure to second-hand tobacco smoke continued to decline. In the past six months, only 12 % of respondents had been exposed to smoke in restaurants, and 25 % in bars. Some 73 % of workers in Europe had rarely or never been exposed to smoke indoors in their workplace.
This note has been prepared by EPRS for the European Parliament’s Open Days in May 2017.