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Ignored and discriminated - majority of smokers in EU believe regulators no longer reflect their interests, according to new survey

16:43 30/04/2024

Some 65% of smokers in Europe believe that EU decision makers do not consider the impact to smokers when deciding rules and regulations on tobacco and nicotine-containing products.

In addition, two thirds of general population adults (66%) want organisations like the EU and WHO to focus more on harm reduction by encouraging smokers to use less harmful products rather than trying to eliminate tobacco use altogether.

These are among the key messages to emerge from an extensive new survey by independent public opinion research firm Povaddo, commissioned for tobacco company Philip Morris International (PMI).

The survey of more than 14,000 adults in 14 European countries included Ukraine for the first time. It suggests Europeans hold particularly “strong opinions” about how such products should be treated by governments, both at a national and EU level.

In addition, the results show that 60% of respondents believe their country has a “problem” with illicit tobacco and nicotine-containing products. But only 6% of participants across the 13 member states correctly identified that in 2022 between €10bn and €15bn tax revenue was lost due to illicit trade. 

The illicit tobacco market is a pertinent topic for Belgium, one of the countries polled, because of the high incidence of contraband and counterfeit within its borders.


A growing number of Illegal cigarette factories in Belgium are producing more counterfeit cigarettes, according to KPMG figures for 2021, the last year for which such data is available. The criminal activity fuels the clandestine market in France, which accounts for around 50% of illicit trade in the EU.

Commenting on the latest poll, Povaddo’s president William Stewart said the results suggested a disconnect between policymakers and the citizens they govern and represent when it comes to tobacco policy.

“The EU policy approach seems more focused on an unrealistic objective, the complete eradication of nicotine use, while the majority of the public is receptive to the pragmatic concept of tobacco harm reduction and encouraging smokers to use less harmful nicotine-containing products,” he added.

Just over 50% of respondents continue to believe the EU is headed in the “wrong direction” on its tobacco policy, while 60% consider both their home country and the EU have an issue with illicit tobacco and nicotine-containing products. Only 38% had seen, read, or heard of illicit tobacco and nicotine-containing products in their individual countries.

Three-quarters of respondents thought the illicit trade undermined efforts to reduce smoking rates. Crucially, two-thirds (67%) agreed illicit trade made it less likely that adult smokers would fully switch to alternative tobacco products.

Almost seven in 10 (69%) believed that the illegal market undermined health authorities’ attempts to significantly reduce smoking rates. France remains the largest illicit market in the EU with a total consumption of 15 billion illicit cigarettes consumed.

The findings record wide acceptance that smoke-free alternatives such as e-cigarettes, nicotine pouches and heated tobacco products are reasonable alternatives to traditional cigarettes that the EU “should carefully consider”.

While most respondents continue to believe their individual countries are still getting it wrong, improvements were noted. Poland is cited as a prime example after 36% of Poles reported an increase in their belief that the country was moving in the right direction. This could be related to the country registering a decrease in illicit cigarette consumption following the adoption of an innovative tax policy establishing a five-year timeline for tobacco excise reviews. Similar trends were noted in Slovakia (+14%), and Bulgaria (12%).

But the bottom line according to Stewart was that the illicit tobacco trade is viewed as a problem across Europe. “There’s a pretty clear mandate from the public that governments must take illicit trade into account when deciding how to regulate and tax these products.” 


Asked to comment on the findings, a spokesman for the European Commission’s health and food safety directorate said: “Protecting the health of our citizens is our main priority. The Commission aims to deliver on the ambition of Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan and create a tobacco-free generation where less than 5% of the EU population uses tobacco by 2040, helping member states better protect their citizens against the risks of tobacco. Within this, concerns expressed by citizens are always duly considered.” 

He pointed out that whatever the method, “smoking is never safe”, while recognising that tobacco consumption is the single largest avoidable health risk, as well as the most significant cause of premature death in the EU.

“The Commission is undertaking a comprehensive evaluation of the EU legislative framework on tobacco control, including via wide public consultations and studies. In line with better regulation requirements for legislative proposals of the Commission, any possible future revision of the Tobacco Products Directive will depend on the findings of the evaluation and the public consultations, and additionally will be subject to a thorough impact assessment.”

On the question of tobacco consumption and risk to public health, PMI referred to three judicial decisions in Belgium, Germany and Sweden between 2018 and 2023 that recognised the difference between heated tobacco products and smoking, with the latter involving a combustible product.

In addition, the Council of State of Belgium annulled a decision by the country’s health ministry mandating a cigarette health warning on a non-cigarette product, as it was not in line with European law and specifically the Tobacco Products Directive.

The countries polled by Povaddo from 29 December 2023 to 31 January 2024, were Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, France, Greece, Italy, Lithuania, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Spain and Ukraine.

Photos: ©Belga/Nicolas Maeterlinck; Fake cigarettes found in Antwerp ©Belga/Dirk Waem; Goodboro e-cigarette, e-liquids & accessories store, Namur © Damien Maguire/Image Digital

Written by Martin Banks