Belgium’s health minister refuses to give smokers a way out of deadly addiction

The Belgium government is proceeding with its intentions to ban nicotine pouches, prompting questions as to why the country doesn’t allow for safer nicotine products to play a bigger role in the work towards a smoke-free generation.

Last summer, the Belgium government informed the EU commission that they wanted to ban nicotine pouches until “there is proof that they are a useful instrument in lowering smoking rates”. While the commission did not submit any comment, the proposal received negative opinions from Sweden, Croatia, and Hungary.

For the Belgian Minister of Health, Frank Vandenbroucke, there can be no place on the market for nicotine pouches. Last week, the minister called, yet again, for a ban on such products, arguing that they can be “a stepping stone to cigarette smoking at an early age”. But with an estimated 25 percent of its population being dependent on cigarettes, is Belgium continuing to be overcautious about smoke-free products?

Growing support for harm reduction

Killing more than 8 million people a year, smoking remains the world’s biggest public health threat. In response to the ongoing global health crisis, countries have adopted various stances.

Aiming for a smoke-free generation, the New Zealand government will be increasing the legal smoking age every year, effectively banning the sale of cigarettes to those born after 2008. The United Kingdom, on the other hand, is considering becoming the first country in the world to prescribe medically licensed e-cigarettes to curb smoking rates.

Other countries have embraced alternative paths. In Sweden and Norway, the proportion of smokers has reached an all-time low and is steadily decreasing. Tobacco snus and nicotine pouches have played a significant role in this development.

Another one seizing smoke-free products potential is the Czech Republic. By preparing legislation to include nicotine pouches and reduced-risk policy tools in its health strategy, the country is headed to becoming the leading proponent of tobacco harm reduction in the EU. Similar tendencies are also seen across the Atlantic. Recently, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authorized three new heated tobacco products as “the net population-level benefits to adult smokers outweigh the risks to youth.”

If Belgium continues down the slippery slope of restrictions and bans, smokers will be left without attractive alternatives – counter to any public health interests. If the Belgium government really wants to curb smoking rates, it must dare to embrace a wider strategy that includes reduced-risk products.