Today sees the publication of the 2017 edition of the Nanny State Index, a league table of the best and worst places in the European Union to eat, drink, smoke and vape. Each country is given a score according to the scale of its paternalistic regulation of alcohol, e-cigarettes, food and tobacco. There is no change at the top, with Finland enjoying a seemingly impregnable lead as the EU’s number one nanny state thanks to draconian restrictions on all four product categories, but the UK and Ireland are not far behind, saved only by their more liberal approach to vaping. The best performing countries are those which have relatively low taxes and a tolerant attitude to smokers, drinkers and vapers. The Czech Republic and Germany stand out at the foot of the table.
Since the first edition of the Index was published in March 2016, there have been many changes, mostly for the worse, and all but six of the 28 countries studied have a higher score than they did last year. Vapers have been particularly badly hit. When we compiled last year’s index, only one country taxed e-cigarette fluid. That number has now risen to six and seems likely to rise further as governments scramble for money to offset falling tobacco revenues. The number of countries that ban the use of e-cigarettes indoors has risen to eleven. And thanks to a new EU directive, a wide range of vaping products are now illegal, along with most e-cigarette advertising.
While the EU has been responsible for some big changes to e-cigarette and tobacco regulation in the past year, it would be wrong to blame Brussels for more than a fraction of the nanny state activity seen in Europe. The wide variation in scores between the freest countries at the foot of the table and the more restrictive countries at the top shows that national governments have considerable latitude in regulating personal behaviour. Nobody forced the French government to ban free refills of sugary drinks. Nobody forced the Finnish government to ban happy hours in bars. The growing tendency towards taxing soft drinks and banning branding on cigarette packs is the result of politicians capitulating to pressure groups in their own countries. As Germany and several other countries have shown, these vocal minorities can be ignored without the sky falling in.
It is an inconvenient but important fact that there is no correlation between Nanny State Index scores and life expectancy, no correlation between tobacco control scores and smoking rates, and no correlation between alcohol control scores and binge-drinking. Moreover, countries with the toughest anti-obesity policies do not have lower rates of obesity. It is more difficult to evaluate anti-vaping policies as it is not obvious what they are trying to achieve, but if the aim is to somehow improve health, they have failed.
Failure would not be so bad if the policies did not create so many problems and costs. ‘Sin taxes’ fall most heavily on the poor. High prices fuel the black market. Advertising bans restrict competition and stifle innovation. Smoking bans damage pubs and clubs. Excessive regulation creates costly bureaucracies and drains police resources. Perhaps most importantly, nanny state policies prevent adult consumers from living their lives as they choose.
Nevertheless, the nanny state crusade marches on, proof of C. S. Lewis’s observation that ‘those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.’ Looking to the future, the prospects for lifestyle freedom generally look bleak. A number of countries are seeking to join Hungary, Finland and France in putting a ‘sin tax’ on sugary drinks. Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia are all on the verge of introducing heavy temperance legislation. Sweden is set to regulate alcoholic ice cream. Ireland is due to introduce plain packaging for tobacco and may introduce a display ban for alcohol. Even the Czech Republic is buckling to the ‘public health’ lobby by introducing an indoor smoking ban later this month. As the Nanny State Index shows in graphic detail, the hyper-regulation of private behaviour is on the rise all over Europe and things are going to get worse before they get better.