Will Belgium’s Smoking Cessation Strategy be Effective?

While amendments to Belgium's current tobacco laws aim to reduce smoking rates, experts highlight that these are missing a crucial element.

Belgium’s Health Minister, Frank Vandenbroucke, has recently unveiled a series of measures aimed at combatting smoking, including banning tobacco product displays and restricting sales at large supermarkets and festivals. Belgium struggles with high smoking rates, with 24% of the population being current smokers. These result in approximately 14,000 smoking-related deaths annually.

The Belgian government aims to increase tobacco taxes, with a €1 increase in the cost of a 20-cigarette pack, generating an extra €50 million in annual tax revenue. By enforcing these new regulations, the government aims to achieve a “smoke-free generation.” The regulations should take effect on January 1st, 2025, and they include substantial penalties for non-compliance.

However, Sciensano research suggests that Belgium is unlikely to achieve its smoking reduction targets. Moreover, there are widespread concerns that price hikes will not deter French smokers. Despite these expert opinions, Belgium is determined to press on with the changes.

The Belgian government is urged to implement a tobacco harm reduction strategy
Meanwhile, tobacco harm reduction (THR) experts are calling on the Belgian government to prioritize harm reduction in their upcoming Council presidency term, commencing on January 1st, 2024. Politico recently published the Belgian presidency’s working program, outlining five key health priorities, including health system resilience, health equity, and overall population health.

Belgium legalized vaping products in 2016 but imposed restrictions, including a ban on online sales. A ban on vape sales from vending machines is set to go into effect imminently, while as of last Summer, nicotine-free vapes must undergo notification and adhere to specified product, labeling, and packaging restrictions.

When last year, the Federal Government of Belgium approved the bill to ban tobacco vending machines across the hospitality industry, ETHRA wrote to the Belgian government highlighting the important role that safer nicotine products can play in the country’s efforts to becoming smoke-free. This document was co-signed by 19 independent experts in tobacco and nicotine science and policy.

In early 2022, the Superior Health Council of Belgium officially acknowledged that vaping is a safer alternative to smoking and recommended it for smoking cessation. The report stated that vaping “is a better alternative than smoking and can be used as a smoking cessation aid.” Therefore, “it is a good idea to switch from a classic cigarette to an e-cigarette in the first place, but ideally also to phase out vaping afterwards”, it stated.

However, the document also contained some vague recommendations on restrictions for vape flavours. Sadly, the Council suggested freezing the current e-liquid market whilst investigating the health effects of the products.

Sweden’s success should be considered
Last October, Director of the World Vapers’ Alliance (WVA) Michael Landl, reiterated the importance of making THR an integral part of any efforts to reach a smoke-free status. Landl urged the Belgian government to emulate Sweden’s approach and embrace harm reduction as a catalyst for achieving a smoke-free Europe.

The focus should be on facilitating smoking cessation rather than hindering it, highlighted Landl. He added that allowing a variety of flavours and reducing taxes on lower-risk products have proven to be effective strategies for smoking cessation, as demonstrated by Sweden and the UK.