How to stamp out cigarettes for good

The European Commission has registered a European Citizens’ Initiative to create the bloc’s first tobacco-free generation. The Spanish NGO behind the bid makes its case for banning the sale of cigarettes to those born after 2010
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By Ubaldo Cuadrado

Ubaldo Cuadrado is the Vice President of Nofumadores, a Spanish public health NGO advocating for a tobacco-free future

07 Sep 2022

One million signatures from European citizens in seven different countries: that is what it will take for the European Commission to consider banning the sale of tobacco to those born after 2010.

On 24 August, the Commission registered a European Citizens’ Initiative entitled ‘Call to achieve a tobacco-free environment and the first European tobacco-free generation by 2030’, which was organised primarily by our small team at Nofumadores, a Spanish NGO. We have six months from that date to gain enough signatures for the Commission to react.

This is a giant task for us highly idealistic but ultimately cash-strapped anti-tobacco activists. Yet drawing our politicians’ attention to the harm caused by tobacco and nicotine products and the irredeemable nature of the tobacco industry is the moral thing to do. And by doing so, we are claiming that the sovereignty of the EU rests on the shoulders of the bloc’s citizens and not on the lobbying capacity of these transnational corporations with slavery in their DNA.

Just to be clear, if cigarettes were invented today, they would never make it to market. Cigarettes cause so much cancer and disease that if no one were allowed to smoke, the number of people diagnosed with lung cancer in Spain would decrease by 85 per cent, according to the president of the Spanish Society of Medical Oncology. As European citizens, we have every right to ask ourselves why such a deadly product should remain legal at all. However, our goals are reasonable: we want to start by saving the next generation from this scourge.

As European citizens, we have every right to ask ourselves why such a deadly product should remain legal at all

By ending the sale of tobacco and nicotine products to citizens born after 2010, we aim to create the first tobacco-free European generation. Over time, this measure will bring an end to tobacco sales entirely.

However, such action must be paired with enforcement measures and expensive fines for those selling tobacco to minors as well as a massive expansion of outdoor smoke- and vapor-free spaces, especially those places frequented by minors such as parks, swimming pools, sports centres and events.

We also cannot overemphasise the importance of banning cigarettes from bars, restaurants and clubs of any kind, not only indoors but outdoors too. We are addressing these issues as well by calling for a ban on any kind of advertising or promotion of the act of smoking or vaping, both old and new.

It is vital for European citizens to understand the true nature of tobacco corporations: they are, in many cases, direct heirs of enterprises built on slave labour. Tobacco was one of the most intensive cash crops used to fuel colonial trade. The atrocity of the Atlantic slave trade and the way tobacco was produced in Virginia around the Chesapeake Bay are embedded with a general disregard for the dignity of human life.

Slavery is inherent to the industry, a point that we want to make very clear because tobacco companies have co-opted and perverted the meaning of freedom. They have no right to use that word and yes, abolition is the right term to end the trade of such a shameful, addictive, deadly product.

To summarise, we are asking the EU to free the next generation. Tobacco companies need teenagers to perpetuate the cycle of addiction, disease and death. The EU must accompany this measure with sweeping restrictions on where current smokers are allowed to light a cigarette, vape or use any heated tobacco device. There is also a huge need to decrease the number of places where tobacco can be sold.

Freedom has nothing to do with tobacco since it’s an addictive product, and when someone is addicted to something, the freedom of choice doesn’t exist. Real freedom starts by preventing minors who have never smoked from falling into the hands of a manipulative industry bent on getting new recruits addicted to their lethal product. The best way to achieve this aim is by making tobacco inaccessible to young people, because those who have never tried it will never miss it or need it.

Also, cigarettes and e-cigarettes are not sustainable in a world of global warming. Tobacco farming is highly water intensive, contributes to biodiversity loss and causes close to five per cent of deforestation in low- and middle-income countries, due to land clearing to grow the crops and procure wood for tobacco curing. In terms of carbon emissions generated, the footprint of tobacco is equal to that of entire countries. These staggering statistics are the impact of just a handful of companies that not only created the playbook for corporate denialism but also, in the case of climate change, have widely funded and lent institutional support to climate change deniers, causing further harm.

Real freedom starts by preventing minors who have never smoked from falling into the hands of a manipulative industry bent on getting new recruits addicted to their lethal product

Moreover, cigarette butts are a frequently littered item – an estimated four and a half tn butts are discarded each year – and often end up on beaches and in waterways. Tobacco filters, made of cellulose acetate, are the number one ocean plastic, more numerous than plastic bottles and wrappers. These filters end up dissipating into microplastics and entering the food chain. The EU has taken measures to curb plastic straws, but cigarette butts have, once again, slipped under the radar.

We have proposed creating a network of tobacco-free and butts-free beaches and riverbanks in Europe. Nofumadores has already taken up the challenge in Spain, by gathering more than 356,000 signatures to enact a national law that would make beaches off-limits to tobacco products. A more recent proposal to free national parks from the perils and pollution of smoking and cigarette butts has been gathering steam during the most damaging fire season Spain has experienced in decades (some of the fires were caused by smokers) – the petition already has 78,000 signatures.

We know that creating Europe’s first generation of tobacco-free citizens is a giant task, one that will require much more than one million signatures. But we will work tirelessly because we see ourselves as expanding human freedoms. We are standing on the shoulders of the giants in England who abolished the slave trade in 1807 and slavery in 1833. However, Europe should never bail out these companies the way England did with slave owners.

It is the extreme cruelty of this product, the continuous deception and corruption of these companies and the immense power and wealth of these descendants of slave traders that we are trying to end. The EU is a haven of human rights and a project where real sovereignty belongs to the citizens and not in the hands of such harmful, predatory people.

As Curtis H Judge, then president of the Lorillard Tobacco Company, said in a deposition in 1984, “No one should sell a product that is a proven cause of lung cancer.” For once, we can agree on something.