Sales of menthol-flavored cigarettes in Estonia are banned as of Wedensday, in line with European Union law. The rationale behind the ban is cited as reducing the incidence of smoking among women and young people, ERR's online news in Estonian reports. Critics say the move could lead to a surge in black market sales.
"Menthol cigarettes will cease to be marketed throughout the EU on 20 May 20," said Aive Telling, head of environmental health and safety at the Ministry of Social Affairs.
"The aim of the restriction is to reduce the appeal of tobacco products, especially with young people and those who have taken up smoking," Telling went on.
"Menthol in particular is what alters the roughness of a smoke, making it easier and more pleasant to inhale. The use of menthol as a substance in itself is not prohibited. Small amounts of menthol may be used, but cigarettes must not have a distinctive taste - it (i.e. menthol) is a different taste from that of tobacco."
Differently-flavored cigarettes were banned three years ago, but an extension was granted to menthol flavor. While the market share for flavored cigarettes in 2017, when the EU directive came into effect, was small, the new rules will, according to lobbyists, change the market since as of recently menthol-flavored smokes had accounted for more than a quarter of the market in Estonia.
"In Estonia, those menthol-flavored and capsule cigarettes, which are now banned, accounted for 27.7 percent of the local cigarette market. Simply put, every fourth legally sold cigarette is to be banned," said Jaanus Pauts, board member of the Estonian tobacco manufacturers association (Eesti Tubakatootjate Assotsatsioon).
Social affairs ministry downplays risk of black market sales increase
This has sparked fears of a surge in black market sales, which the social affairs ministry says has been falling in recent times, however, adding there is nothing pointing towards a resurgence.
"Our main desire is that current smokers do not start using cigarettes. It is nice to note that the share of black market cigarette sales in Estonia has dropped pleasingly. In the last quarter of last year, it stood at less than ten percent," Aive Telling said.
Stocks of distinctive flavored cigarettes must be removed from points of sale by producers and destroyed. Additionally, is not possible to market the same cigarettes in other, non-EU countries, since products carrying Estonian health warnings may not be sold in other countries.
Cards giving a heads up about the impending ban had been inserted into menthol cigarette packs in the lead up to the law coming into force (see picture).
Another concern for Jaanus Pauts is that it is difficult to quantify the extent to which a cigarette is flavored (as noted, menthol in cigarettes itself is not banned, but must be kept at a level which does not alter the flavor).
"To my knowledge on the specific ISO standard, how to identify what a distinctive taste constitutes has unfortunately not yet been established. This raises the question of what can be hidden there; we also have a little question mark over where this particular dividing line is," he said.
Menthol itself not banned in cigarettes
Aive Telling said an EU-level "taste panel" will arbitrated, though conceded defining a distinctive flavored cigarette is sometimes difficult.
Different attempts are being made to [legally] bring different flavors on to market, but the current directive, and domestic law, also say that all the various technical solutions which at present give tobacco a distinctive taste- filters, capsules, papers - are banned."
Capsule cigarettes involve the smoker popping a capsule or similar embedded in the filter, to release the flavor.
The social affairs ministry noted on its website that tobacco use is responsible for 40 percent of all cases of cardiovascular disease worldwide, 80 percent of cases of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and 30 percent of all cases of cancer. Smoking also causes 90 percent of lung cancer cases, the ministry says.
No change to excise duties rules.
While sales of menthol-flavored cigarettes are now banned in Estonia, the excise duty regulations for those bringing in cigarettes remain unchanged, the Tax and Customs Board (MTA) told ERR News Wednesday.
"Products and packaging imported by a person as a passenger, for non-commercial purposes, are not subject to the requirements provided by law. It is still permissible to bring in the duty-free quantity and, if an individual enters from a third (non-EU) country, then the quantity in excess of the duty-free allowance is taxed," Head of the MTA's Excise Division Kai-Liis Nõlvak said.
The current allowances are 40 cigarettes, i.e. two packs, or if traveling by air, up to 200 cigarettes, according to the MTA's site.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), tobacco use is linked to at least 25 diseases, and is considered to be the leading cause of death worldwide.
In 2018, 5,245 people died in Estonia due to smoking-related diseases, the social affairs ministry says.
Editor: Andrew Whyte