Estonian Parliament embraces Tobacco Harm Reduction but gets played by the Health Minister
At a session in the Parliament of Estonia (Riigikogu) on the 13th February, members gave overwhelming support to major reforms of current Estonian tobacco legislation. Proposed amendments included limiting e-cigarette restrictions (July 2019 flavour ban, e-liquid excise tax and domestic online sales ban). The Parliament also overwhelmingly supported to correct the long term failure of Estonian Government to regulate novel smokeless products to enter the Estonian market. The amendments were supported by almost all political parties – ‘Conservatives’, ‘Centrists’ and ‘Liberals’ - only the Social Democrats voted against policies which supported tobacco harm reduction.
NNA Estonia was delighted to see that the benefits of tobacco harm reduction has finally been recognised by so many MPs - it’s been hard work and a long time coming! Apart from continuous public awareness raising one of our recent initiatives included staging a Tobacco Harm Reduction conference in Parliament house in which leading International THR scientists and specialists: Prof.Martin Jarvis, Prof.Peter Hajek, Louise Ross, Dr. Karl Snæbjörnsson and Judy Gibson presented facts and discussed the benefits of e-cigarettes to an invited audience.
Whilst disappointed that the Social Democrats felt unable to support the amendments (a fact which vapers in Estonia may wish to consider when voting in the Parliamentary elections on 3rd of March ), we are very encouraged by our overall progress. Lives depend upon it!
The ‘break in the ice’ was reflected in MP’s comments:-
MP Tarmo Kruusimäe (Conservative)
The law on tobacco is undergoing a Parliamentary review. Whilst detailed methods of tracking [combustible] tobacco ‘like Sherlock Holmes’ is important, it is even more important to reduce the risks from cigarettes and passive smoke - but the the relaxation of the regulations of e-cigarettes and allowing heat-not-burn products to enter the Estonian market provide an alternative opportunity to achieve it.
MP Madis Milling (Liberal) stated that, over the last four years, the debates in Parliament on tobacco law have made alternative products more expensive and also more difficult to obtain than conventional cigarettes, and that, together, it has also made it more difficult to quit smoking. Milling said that the explanations provided by the Ministry of Social Affairs officials, according to which it is claimed that no studies have been carried out on alternative products and that, at the same time, they appear to be as harmful as conventional cigarettes, remain difficult to understand. Milling pointed out that, where innovation is usually supported, in tobacco policy this is not the case and that hundreds of research studies carried out abroad are neglected.
MP Aadu Must (Center Party) had an idea to make Estonian university town Tartu the first smoke free town in Estonia. He envisioned Estonia ten years from now when people would not believe anymore that anybody in such a recent past actually smoked burning cigarettes when less harmful alternatives were already available.
The debate in Parliament was overshadowed by a threat from the Social Democrat Minister of Health, by which she promised to suspend the debate on the bill if Parliament approved the proposals to reasonably regulate less harmful alternatives to smoking that were unsuitable for her.
This wasn’t quite the end…
It is customary in Estonia for the initiator of a bill to control its passage insofar that if substantial changes are made the initiator has the right to withdraw it. The core legislation contained within the Tobacco Bill was required to pass in order to comply with the EU Tobacco Directive.
To cut a very long story short:-
1. The Minister of Health didn’t like the proposed amendments - not one little bit.
2. She reacted by threatening to take back the bill in a letter of intent to the speaker. including all those really important bits needed to comply with EU TPD directive. (Hint: she was later found to have overstepped the mark ;-)
3. Those bits if not implemented within a time period may incur financial sanctions (Ooops)
4. Parliament took not a blind bit of notice of her threat - THR was winning (Yesss!)
5. A legal furore ensued resulting in Parliament being suspended for several hours (which is something of a first in Estonia).
6. Meanwhile The Social Democrats (Booo!) persuaded the Prime Minister to give his approval to their proposal to suspend the passage of the Bill - despite the overwhelming approval of the new amendments (Don’t ask).
7. The imminence of elections has resulted in the bill being postponed - so the whole thing will have to debated all over again under a new Parliament, the EU may decide to impose sanctions and if you ever thought Brexit was bad - welcome to Estonia!!
Let me explain..
MPs were disturbed by such a threat, because Estonia is a parliamentary democracy, where laws are created by Parliament and not by the government. By her letter, the Minister set a trap for Parliament, because if the debate on the Tobacco Act is interrupted, Estonia will not be able to implement the EU Tobacco Directive’s Articles 15 and 16 for tracking and tracing at the right time and may be subject to sanctions.
Despite the knowledge of such a letter from the Minister of Health, Parliament decided to support the amendments that help reduce public health damage from cigarettes and encourage smoking cessation. The Parliament’s Board had to accept the Social Democrat Minister of Health request for a suspension of the reading of the Tobacco Act.
The Minister's request caused a legal dispute during the Plenary because the MPs were not convinced that the Minister had the right to suspend the discussion of the draft. As a result of the dispute, the work of Parliament stopped for 1,5 hours which has not happened for similar reasons never before.
Later it turned out that the Minister of Health does not have such a right on her own, such a proposal can be made by the Minister only if she has the support of the Government. During the parliamentary debate, the Social Democrats had persuaded the Prime Minister to support suspending the draft, despite the fact that a large majority of the MPs in his Center party had also voted in favour of the amendments. From media it appears the Prime Minister confirmed his support to suspension by an sms (!!) to the Parliament’s Board member.
The debate on the Tobacco Act in the Estonian Parliament was interrupted and, as Parliament has completed its work due to the elections this Sunday, the new Parliament must start with discussions from scratch. At the same time, Estonia will most likely not be able to implement the EU Tobacco Directive at the right time and may be subject to sanctions.