jo churchill uk snus ban review

UK breaks from ‘flawed’ EU science with vow of evidence-based snus ban review

UK health minister Jo Churchill’s promise of an evidence-based snus ban review marks a significant turning point in acknowledging the questionable science behind the impact assessment used by the EU to justify the ban.

“My hon. Friend Adam Afriyie will be interested to hear that, although snus is currently banned under the regulations, we are undertaking a review and will consider the evidence base,” Churchill said during a June 10th parliamentary debate about an updated UK tobacco control plan.

The statement was hailed as a victory by tobacco harm reduction advocates who have lobbied hard for the UK to abandon the current ban on snus post-Brexit.

“The original EU snus ban is based on flawed science. It’s high time the UK abandoned the senseless ban on snus now that we are no longer beholden to anti-science Brussels bureaucrats,” said Mark Oates, head of the UK-based Snus and Nicotine Pouch Users Association, who called the snus ban review a “step in the right direction”.

More calls for UK snus ban review

Churchill’s June 10th statement comes a matter of weeks after Lord Bethell, who serves as the House of Lords’ health secretary, said that the UK government would “review the evidence” regarding snus to determine “if any future regulatory changes should be considered”.

Bethell’s comments came in response to a question by Viscount Ridley about what scientific evidence the government was using to support the snus ban.

Snus remains banned in the UK thanks to 1992 Tobacco for Oral Use (Safety) Regulations, which implemented EU Directive 92/41 – and the ban on snus – into UK law.

The ban has been confirmed in subsequent regulations, most recently by the EU Tobacco Products Directive (TPD) (2014/40), which was transposed into UK law in 2016 as the Tobacco and Related Products Regulation (TRPR). 

Science ‘misused’ in TPD Impact Assessment

However, the science used in the 2012 Impact Assessment to justify the snus ban back in 2014 has long been criticized.

“It’s hard to imagine a worse case of evidence being massaged into supporting a pre-determined policy conclusion,” wrote tobacco harm reduction advocate Clive Bates at the time.

Bates, together with Swedish tobacco researcher Lars Ramström, published a blistering critique of the Impact Assessment, stating bluntly that “mainstream scientific opinion does not support the European Commission’s case” for continuing with the ban on snus.

READ MORE: Clive Bates on what the EU got wrong about tobacco

Among other things, they criticized the Commission for failing to take into account views of the WHO Study Group on Tobacco Regulation, Royal College of Physicians, European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, as well as a group of 15 respected scientists regarding common standards for product toxicity for smokeless tobacco.

“Scientific reasoning in the impact assessment has pervasive errors of fact and interpretation, selective use of evidence, important omissions, and poor conceptual framing,” Bates and Ramström wrote.

“Our critique suggests that science has been misused to justify a predetermined policy, rather than the policy developed on the basis of sound science.”

EU guilty of ‘selective’ interpretation of evidence

And looking at the recently issued SCHEER opinion on e-cigarettes shows that the EU’s habit of choosing policy-based evidence-making over evidence-based policy-making continues.

“The primary failure of the SCHEER preliminary scientific opinion is that it does not provide a scientific analysis that is useful to policymakers considering the effect of the Tobacco Products Directive and whether a future revision is necessary,” Bates wrote following its publication.

According to Bates, the SCHEER report igores or selectively interprets evidence on smoking cessation and lacks any substantive policy impact research.

“The most serious failing is the omission of scientific research related to the effect of policies on smoking and vaping behaviour. Policy impact research is the most critical science for policymakers, and it is wholly absent from the preliminary opinion,” he wrote.

Bates wasn’t alone in his criticism of the science behind the EU’s SCHEER report. UK health agency Public Health England (PHE) also slammed the EU for poor methodology.

In a February 2021 report on vaping in the UK, PHE listed a long list of methodological shortcomings in the SCHEER opinon, including failure to follow established guidelines for systematically reviewing evidence and a lack of information specifying the quality of the studies included.

The respected UK health agency also accused the EU of cherry-picking studies included in the SCHEER report, pointing out that the opinion was based on studies carried out before the TPD was in place while at the same time excluding studies published after 2019, leading to a “reliance on out-of-date data in this quickly moving field”.

“Given these methodological concerns and that SCHEER was still carrying out a consultation on this preliminary Opinion at the time of writing, the report is not covered further here,” PHE wrote in its dismissal of the EU report.

UK will have ‘no choice’ but to legalise snus

However, the recent statements by Churchill and Lord Bethell indicate the UK government is ready to break with the EU’s questionable use of science in developing tobacco policy and instead adopt its own standards and methods for conducting an evidence-based impact assessment regarding snus and other tobacco products.

“The science on snus is clear. It’s a less harmful nicotine product and has the ability to improve the health of the British public if used instead of smoking,” says Oates.

He believes that should UK officials give snus a fair hearing like they did with vaping, they will have “no choice but to legalise snus in the UK”.

“This is welcome news for all of us who feel strongly about the need to offer consumers a broad range of less-harmful nicotine products so the UK can reach its smoking reduction targets by 2030.”

Oates hopes that the results of the UK snus ban review could help change minds in Brussels as well.

“Hopefully the UK will legalise and show how snus can help countries reduce smoking-related illnesses, giving the EU no option but to take note and remove their nonsensical ban,” he says.

READ MORE: EU Tobacco Products Directive a ‘wasted opportunity’ to learn from Sweden