At a time when vaping in Europe is again under threat, with taxes, flavour bans and restrictions looming, non-profit organisation European Tobacco Harm Reduction Advocates (ETHRA), are running an ambitious survey to draw a map of vaping and nicotine use across the EU (and, yes, that includes the UK!)
We got together with Philippe Poirson, who is directing the survey, to find out more about it - and why he needs more British vapers to help out.
What is the background to the survey?
The survey is organised by ETHRA, which brings together 22 European consumer advocate groups. We started ETHRA in the summer of 2019 to coordinate and join forces, particularly on European regulatory issues and especially in view of the Tobacco Products Directive (TPD) revision. This TPD review is fast approaching, as the TPD evaluation report will be presented by the European Commission next May.
More unexpectedly, on June 2, European governments asked the EU’s Tax Commission to prepare a revision of the Excise Directive (TED) to integrate ‘new products’ including vaping products ‘with or without nicotine’. The tax proposals will be presented in the spring and could be adopted by the end of 2021.
In this context, we thought a survey of nicotine users in Europe would be highly relevant.
What information are you looking for?
We are looking to draw a ‘map’ of nicotine use and believe this is the first European survey to cover so many aspects of it. When designing the survey we tried to make it relevant to the different situations across Europe while keeping it to a reasonable time of 5 to 10 minutes to answer it.
The survey concerns the use of different nicotine products. To keep the survey to a reasonable length, we focused on smoking and the two products predominantly used by people in our consumer groups, which are vaping products and snus. These two products could be the subject of possible regulatory issues during the revision of the TPD and Tobacco Excise Direct (TED).
Nicotine product use is partially determined by regulations, both European and local. Across Europe there are variations in access to safer products, and people might develop ways to get round some restrictions. So, the survey has questions to examine how people might use products differently when living under different regulations.
Our analysis of the survey data will enable us to examine these issues. We will have data which will be interesting on a European scale, and data that will allow us to highlight possible differences between countries. For example, we will be able to compare Finland, which heavily taxes vaping and bans e-liquid flavours (except tobacco), with more tolerant countries. Of course, these comparisons will only be possible for countries where there are a sufficient number of responses to make a meaningful statistical analysis.
Who is funding this survey - and is it independent of big tobacco companies?
The survey is totally independent. It is not only independent of Big Tobacco, but it is also independent of any industry. All of the development work, the translations and the future analysis is and will be done on a voluntary basis by members of ETHRA. I took on the role of survey coordinator and I have no direct or indirect financial ties with any of the industries involved. My income comes from a completely different source.
The only cost involved is the subscription to the survey platform Evalandgo. This costs €50 per month, and is paid for by the French non-profit association Sovape, which is a member of ETHRA. Sovape is by statute independent of the tobacco and pharmaceutical industries. We opted for this survey platform to ensure that the data would not be used by third-party companies, as is generally the case with free platforms. It also gives us some useful integrated tools and multilingual facilities.
So, to clearly answer your question, which is an important one: there is no involvement of commercial interests in this survey. This is why we need help with sharing the survey, because we have no budget to ‘push’ it on social media.
How has the response been so far from vapers?
After running for just over a month, the overall participation has exceeded 30,000 responses. This is a gross figure, without processing. We have no previous experience on the European scale, but I think this figure is encouraging for a survey that requires participants to spend some time on the answers. I hope that participation will continue until the December 31 closing date.
Have there been any big findings from the survey so far?
It’s frustrating but for two reasons I can’t answer your question. Firstly, giving indications of results could influence people who might participate in the survey in the future. Secondly, the current data is raw and unprocessed, it is not robust. We will process the data once the survey is closed. So, I hope the readers of Ashtray Blog can forgive me, we will have to wait until 2021 for the results.
What has the response been from the UK?
It could be bigger.
Why is it important for UK vapers to complete this survey?
The British currently have regulations formatted by the TPD, so a survey of the current situation and possible changes are relevant to them. Subjects such as tank and refill bottle sizes, maximum nicotine levels and access to snus may arise in future revisions of UK law.
Despite Brexit, the island has not drifted further away from the continent. Due to its proximity to Europe, the UK will be influenced by European regulations. Having comparable data can help the UK to avoid the bad regulations in place in some of the European countries.
Finally, this is a consumer initiative. We users do not have the billions, we do not have professional lobbyists, we do not own the media. We have here an opportunity to join forces to make our voices heard and to have our rights respected. There is a gesture of solidarity and union in answering this survey which is addressed to all Europeans, including those outside the EU.
What impact could the survey have?
The original motivation for the survey was to bring the voice of users into the discussion on the revision of the TPD. However, the survey will have other impacts too. Some countries, such as Finland, have never had a survey for vapers, so it will be especially valuable for them. I also hope the questionnaire will have a Socratic dialogue touch, and give participants the message that regulation affects users. Activists will find the results useful.
I think vaping professionals, the overwhelming majority of whom are known to be vapers, are also likely to be interested. Health professionals might be receptive to some issues, for example the data regarding smokers who would like to quit but do not succeed. That said, the questionnaire has been designed to take only 5 to 10 minutes to complete, so it will only provide hints and clues. Perhaps the survey will inspire some more in-depth research in the future.