The long-standing dispute over new smokeless tobacco products is set to return to the Riigikogu on Thursday next. The Riigikogu Social Affairs Committee recommends allowing such products as well as menthol-flavored e-cigarettes.
New heated tobacco products appeared a few years ago, and while they still do not have a proper name in Estonian, user figures are swelling. Because primary manufacturer Philip Morris claims their invention does not produce smoke, selling them in Estonian shops is prohibited. Estonia only allows smoking tobacco products. The company's website directs clients to Latvia.
Allowing smokeless tobacco products has been discussed in the parliament for over a year, with the final decision expected next Thursday. That is when the bill initially meant to regulate the tobacco products' monitoring system will come up for its second reading.
Social affairs committee chair Tõnis Mölder (Center) points out that the European directive the draft legislation aims to adopt concentrates on more than just monitoring, which is why the committee has complemented the text.
"The other side of it is allowing to market new smokeless tobacco products. In truth, the directive obligates member states to comply in this regard," Mölder told ERR.
The Ministry of Social Affairs disagrees.
Minister Tanel Kiik (Center) recently wrote that the committee's proposal would change the principles of Estonia's tobacco policy, even opening the market to tobacco candy.
"The aim of tobacco policy should be to reduce tobacco consumption. Allowing additional products entails the risk of the number of users growing that is not in the interests of public health," Kiik said.
Fellow centrist Mölder takes a different view.
"As our neighbors in the European Union have already adopted the directive in full, we will inevitably start seeing products here that shouldn't be allowed or sold here. In other words, we would be creating a favorable environment for the black market," Mölder said.
The chairman emphasized that the social affairs committee did not write the bill for Philip Morris so to speak. The bill only mentions new smokeless products. This means that every producer must first say which category their product belongs in and get approval from the Health Board.
Chief specialist for the board Annemari Linno said it will have to compare new products to existing ones. "In terms of whether it has new properties or uses new technology."
The important thing is that the bill would not allow older smokeless tobacco products, such as chewing tobacco or snuff.
How will the Health Board decide whether a tobacco product is smoked or smokeless? There are several options when it comes to heated tobacco products.
Entrepreneurs are saying that smoke is not created when the temperature remains below 300 degrees. Germany still classifieds such products as smoked because carbon monoxide created during the heating process is classified as a component of smoke.
Annemari Linno said the board does not have fixed guidelines. "We will need to develop necessary criteria, but because the matter has not been regulated on the legislative level, I cannot presently say what they should be."
Menthol e-cigarette liquids
The bill set to reach the floor on Thursday would soften another aspect of tobacco policy. Tõnis Mölder said that in addition to new tobacco products, flavored e-cigarette liquids also cross the border with people. The committee has decided to allow menthol-flavored e-liquids to be sold once again.
"I'm sure the parliament has members who support a more liberal policy toward all manner of flavors and smells. The social affairs committee has only tabled the question of allowing menthol, similarly to regular cigarettes," Mölder said.
The committee's restraint is disliked by the Riigikogu Smokeless Estonia support group the chairman of which Tarmo Kruusimäe said that if menthol is allowed again, other flavors should be too.
The bill does not include an excise duty cut hoped for by the support group or deal with excise duties for smokeless tobacco products for that matter.
Mölder said the debate will likely take place in the future, while excise duty policy is up to the finance committee.
"We are talking about an advertising ban in some way, that minors should not be allowed to buy these products and that if we have harmful tobacco products for sale in Estonia they should be designated and labeled as such," Mölder said.
While he admits that new tobacco products are also harmful for people's health and mainly attract young people, Mölder described the new alternatives as safer than traditional cigarettes.
"Allowing these products to market will definitely result in more tobacco users. Especially in younger age groups. Meaning that the state will have to maintain broad-based prevention efforts here. However, if it will help long-time smokers break out of the smoking chain, it is another strong argument and we definitely want to help those people," Mölder said.
Right now, the bill is still a week away from its second reading. Tarmo Kruusimäe forecast the Riigikogu will pass the bill without further ado. Speaking in favor of this is the fact the social affairs committee supported the bill unanimously.
Editor: Marcus Turovski