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24th Feb 2024

EU Commission targets tobacco and alcohol in cancer fight

  • The average price of a pack of cigarettes can range from €2.57 in Bulgaria to €11.37 in Ireland (Photo: Pixabay)

The European Commission unveiled on Wednesday (3 February) a €4bn plan to improve the fight against cancer - a leading cause of death with a substantial economic burden in the EU.

"In 2020, while we were all fighting against the Covid-19 pandemic, many of us were fighting a silent battle. The battle against cancer," commission president Ursula von der Leyen said in a video statement.

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"Sadly, the number of cases is on the rise," she added.

There are about 1.3 million deaths and 3.5 million new cancer cases per year in the EU, which has a population of 450 million.

However, more than 40 percent of all cancer cases are related to preventable causes, such as environmental pollution, harmful habits or unhealthy diets.

Smoking is still considered the most prominent risk factor for cancer, with 27 percent of all cases attributed to its use.

Today the number of smokers in the EU is still high, with 25 percent of the overall adult population, and 29 percent of youngsters aged 15-24, smoking.

But the commission wants to create a "tobacco-free generation" where less than five percent of the population smokes by 2040.

To achieve this, the EU executive wants to update rules governing the excise duty rates applied to tobacco before the end of the year.

"Tobacco taxation is one of the most effective instruments to fight tobacco consumption, particularly in deterring young people from taking up smoking," said the commission in its cancer plan.

Last year, an evaluation of the Tobacco Taxation Directive by the commission showed that current rules are no longer effective in reducing consumption - since the increase of minimum rates for cigarettes only had an impact in a few member states, which had very low levels of taxation in the first place.

Ireland levies the highest excise duties on cigarettes in the EU (€8), while Bulgaria (€1.80) and Slovakia (€2.07) levy the lowest.

As a result, the average price of a pack of cigarettes can range from €2.57 in Bulgaria to €11.37 in Ireland.

Additionally, the EU wants also to expand the legislative framework regulating tobacco products to new systems such as electronic cigarettes or heated tobacco products by 2023, while expanding smoke-free environments.

Similarly, Brussels wants to review EU legislation on the taxation of alcohol and cross-border purchases of alcohol.

As with tobacco, the commission wants alcohol products to have health warnings on labels before the end of 2023.

In 2016, cancer was the leading cause of 29 percent of alcohol-attributable deaths.

Cervical cancer vaccination

The EU cancer plan proposes various actionplans, ranging from prevention and early detection to improving the quality of lives of those who survived or suffer from the disease.

These initiatives include an EU network linking recognised cancer centres in all member states by 2025, a "cancer survivor" smart-card by 2023, and a registry of cancer inequalities which will be established this year to identify disparities in access to healthcare services across the bloc.

"It is unacceptable that today, we have different rates for early detection, diagnosis, treatment, and survival. We need to have a European Union that represents all of its citizens equally," said EU health commissioner Stella Kyriakides.

Moreover, the commission's plan highlights that some cancers can be avoided thanks to vaccination.

Brussels said that at least 90 percent of girls (and a significant number of boys) should be vaccinated against human papillomaviruses by 2030. This is the most common sexually transmitted infection and it can cause cervical cancer.

Every year, the economic impact of cancer in Europe is more than €100bn. Without action, cases could increase by almost 25 percent by 2035.

"Covid-19 may be masking another creeping pandemic as cancer screening numbers dropped as a result of the pandemic," Kyriakides warned.

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