Despite Sky-High Tobacco Taxes and Ad Bans, Some Europeans Are Smoking More

Is Europe losing the war against smoking? The prevalence of smoking has risen in France, the Czech Republic, and Albania since 2005, and smoking by girls and women is increasing at an “alarming” rate” across much of the Continent, the World Health Organization says in a report issued this week.

The findings are striking, considering that the European Union has banned cigarette advertising in print and broadcast media, and many European countries have enacted sky-high tobacco taxes. In France, where smoking in public indoor spaces is banned, a pack of cigarettes averages about 6.80 euros ($9.25) and the price is set to rise to 7 euros in January. In some other European countries the figure is even higher.

“This is quite shocking, because people do believe that in Europe many things are done well,” Kristina Mauer-Stender, the WHO’s Copenhagen-based tobacco program manager for Europe, tells Bloomberg News. The WHO’s position is that excise taxes are the most cost-effective way to curtail smoking.

Overall, the rate of smoking in Europe decreased by 7 percentage points from 2005 to 2011, the WHO said. All told, 28 percent of European adults currently are smokers, the highest proportion of any region in the world. (The U.S. Centers for Disease Control estimates that 19.3 percent of American adults smoke.)

Yet while some countries, such as Britain, achieved dramatic reductions, the rate of smoking rose elsewhere—particularly among women. In Austria, for example, the rate of female smoking rose 7 percent during the period, while in France, the Czech Republic, and Lithuania it rose 3 percent.

Despite generally high cigarette taxes, Europe has lagged other parts of the world on another antismoking measures. Only 17 percent of European countries have enacted bans on smoking in public places, a lower percentage than in any other region of the world except Africa, the WHO said, adding: “Compliance varies.” And only 4 percent of European countries require large anti-smoking warnings to be printed on cigarette packages, the lowest percentage of any region in the world.

In a separate report, the WHO says the tobacco industry is engaging in “skillful and successful marketing” to girls and women in Europe. Despite the EU ban on media advertising, cigarette companies are sponsoring fashion and cultural events, and putting up point-of-sale displays in stores that target female smokers.

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