A new European Citizen’s Initiative aims to create a “tobacco-free environment and see the first European tobacco-free generation” by 2030. In order to achieve this, the civilians initiate a drastic measure: Europeans born after 2010, even after they turn 18 years old, would not be allowed to ever purchase tobacco products. Children who are now 12 or younger would not be allowed to buy cigarettes as adults, therefore they would be the first generation that is spared from its harmful health and environmental effects.
The fact that smoking is incredibly harmful to one’s health is probably obvious at this point, there is for example a clear connection between smoking and certain types of cancer and overall shorter life expectancy. Additionally, cigarette butts have a large environmental impact if they end up in nature, especially in natural waters, where they harm ecosystems. All of this applies without even addressing the ecological footprint of tobacco production, which raises further issues. So yes, smoking is indeed a significant issue, but the decision of whether it is worth fighting it with such drastic legislation largely depends on whether young Europeans would be willing to give up smoking.
Prohibiting people born after 2010 from buying tobacco products would create a problematic legal situation, regardless of its effectiveness. From 2028 states could differentiate between two adult citizens, who are legally equal, only based on their age. This phenomenon exists in other states, but only in a temporary form. The most well-known example is the US, where an 18 years old, legally adult person is prohibited from buying alcohol until they turn 21, even though they count as an adult citizen within their full rights. On the other hand, such a difference remaining permanent between two citizens is so far without any international example and can be interpreted as discrimination. Thus, European lawmakers would create reasonably large chaos in the EU’s legal framework by enacting a law like this.
It sounds reasonable that even if now only very few young Europeans smoke, and young people start smoking only later, usually in their 20s, this policy could become the last nail in the coffin of European smoking, as young people would be willing to let smoking as a habit go. In this case, maybe even legal double standards would be a worthwhile risk, even considering all its problematic aspects, since the policy could result in a significant improvement in many Europeans’ quality of life. On the other hand, if many young people under the age of 18 already smoke in a country and smoking is part of the everyday life of the youth, the proposal could easily backfire and result in an increase in the black market, with young people consuming lower quality or even dangerous tobacco products.
Statistics suggest that there are large differences in this regard among European member states, and a one-size-fits-all solution would not necessarily be effective. Hungary is leading the charts in youth smoking (15-19 years old) according to recent Eurostat data. 28.6% of young people in Hungary smoke, 8% more than in second-placed Germany, and 13.5% more than in the EU overall (15.1%)
Youth smoking data
Hungary is the only EU member state where the proportion of 15-19 year-olds smoking is higher than the smoking rate of the general population. In the country compared to the 28.6% of young people smoking, only 19.3% of all Hungarian adults smoke, which is in the mid-range of European country data. Therefore, either young people give up smoking occasionally, or the country is on the verge of having one of its most-smoking generations in ages. Other EU countries with high youth smoking statistics show a bit of a different picture. In these cases, youth smoking rates tend to be similar to other age groups in the population, thus it is likely that people simply start smoking at a very young age. This is not surprising in the case of Austria, where the age limit for purchasing tobacco is 16. On the other hand, the age limit in the other four countries is 18, so this policy cannot be entirely blamed for the problem.