Nanny State Index in the EU: New Restrictions in Poland in 2016

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The European think tank network EPICENTER (the European Policy Information Center) has published the second edition of The Nanny State Index, an indicator of state paternalism in the European Union. The index evaluates restrictiveness of regulations governing the sale and consumption of food, soft drinks, alcohol, tobacco, and e-cigarettes in 28 EU countries in 2016. The higher the position in the ranking, the more restrictive the laws. New restrictions put Poland in the ninth place in the latest ranking (worse than  last year’s 15th position).

Finland and the United Kingdom remained at the top of the table, as well as Ireland, which moved up to no. 3. Just like last time, also in 2016, the lightest restrictions were recorded in the Czech Republic and Germany.

For years, politicians and state regulators have been creating and implementing a number of laws that define what, where, and at what price we can eat, drink or smoke. This does not apply only to substances that are commonly associated with restrictive national policies, such as cigarettes, alcohol or other stimulants (e.g. marijuana), but also, to a growing extent, to sweets, sweet drinks or the size of packs of medicines available outside pharmacies or over-the-counter. Taxes levied on various substances along with the standard VAT tax increase the income of the state budget on the one hand, and discourage their consumption on the other.

Restrictions are often justified by state paternalism, i.e. conviction of politicians and officials that they know better what is good and bad for others, and how people should shape their lives. Not only it limits people’s freedom but also destroys their responsibility. Politicians introduce restrictive paternalism to replace systems where adults decide for themselves how to use certain products, enjoying their ability to choose and bearing personal consequences of their choices.

Another edition of The Nanny State Index shows once again how far politicians go in controlling our daily lives. Here, we are dealing not only with limiting freedom of individuals but also with the destruction of their sense of responsibility for themselves. Adults should have much more freedom in deciding what and where they want to eat, drink or smoke  says Marek Tatała, Vice-President of the Board, Civic Development Forum (FOR). In the current edition, Poland ranks as an even more restrictive country than before,  mainly due to changes in the law on e-cigarettes. Will this trend of increasing state paternalism continue to deepen at the expense of individual freedom and responsibility? The announcements of some politicians and officials indicate that the risk is real. It is worth using such indexes to make a real assessment of the effects of existing and planned regulations – he adds.   

The Nanny State Index, the index of state paternalism, consists of four components. The higher their values, the more paternalistic and therefore overprotective is the country. The value of the index for 2016 increased for 22 out of 26 EU countries.

The first component concerns tobacco products. It measures, among others, rates of taxation, advertising restrictions, and the scope of non-smoking ban. In this regard, the restrictiveness of Polish regulations is close to the EU average.

The second component concerns e-cigarettes. A year ago, Poland was among the least restrictive EU countries in this respect. However, its position significantly deteriorated when the Act of July 22, 2016, came into force. It amends the law on the protection of health against the effects of tobacco and tobacco products by introducing a number of restrictions on the consumption and sale of e-cigarettes.

Poland returned to the top ten countries with the highest value of the Nanny State Index in the category of alcohol, which measures the amount of taxes, advertising bans and restrictions on the promotional sale of alcohol in shops and bars.

The last component of the index measures restrictions on food and non-alcoholic beverages, for example, additional taxes or limits on ingredients such as sugar or fats. In Poland, restrictions in this area are few. However, mass media widely reported restrictions imposed on school shops and dishes served in school canteens. The most restrictive country in this regard is Hungary. Let’s hope it won’t become a model for Poland. Proposals of additional taxes on sugar, similar to those already in place in Hungary, Finland and France, are put forward in Ireland and the United Kingdom.

Commenting last year’s edition, Rafał Trzeciakowski, a FOR economist, warned against changes in e-cigarettes regulations. He mentioned the growth of state paternalism, which the Ministry of Health promoted under the guise of implementing the EU Directive. Nevertheless, its Regulatory Impact Assessment implies that no such restrictive provisions are required. This year’s ranking confirms that FOR was right. In Poland, the level of regulation of e-cigarettes has risen to 7.2, while only to 1.7 in Sweden, which was adhering to the same directive. The regulation of e-cigarettes in Poland is much more restrictive than the EU law stipulates.

As a part of the FOR project “Monitor”, we have shown that these changes were detrimental not only to the sellers and manufacturers of e-cigarettes but also to people who want to quit smoking. At the same time, it is the state treasury that benefits. However, research suggests that e-cigarettes could contribute to improving public health (they are harmless or significantly less harmful than traditional cigarettes), and the law prevents their dissemination. The justification of the Act does not include any study on the harmfulness of e-cigarettes, in particular, in comparison to traditional cigarettes. The possible imposition of the excise tax and a consequential price increase would restrict access to e-cigarettes and thus harm Poland’s ranking even further.

A common argument for the use of paternalistic policy in these areas is the “protection of public health”. However, the authors of Index show again that in the EU there is no correlation between the index of restrictiveness and the average lifespan, the number of smokers or the level of alcohol consumption. In addition, the EPICENTER network recalls various problems that an excessive statehood paternalism generates. Additional taxes are more burdensome for low-income people, and higher prices fuel trade in the black market (in counterfeit products and so-called legal highs that can be hazardous to health and life). Moreover, advertising restrictions limit competition and innovation. Expansion of restrictions means also an increase in the cost of bureaucracy and uniformed services that enforce the law.

There is no prize for being the EU’s most intolerant country. Too many politicians seem to think that treating their citizens like children is a matter of national pride. The Nanny State Index shows huge variations between the freest countries, such as Germany and the Czech Republic, and the most oppressive countries, such as Finland and the UK, but the situation is getting worse nearly everywhere. It does not have to be this way. Governments should learn from the successful societies at the foot of the league table and embrace liberty – says Christopher Snowdon, principal author of the index, economist of the British think tank Institute of Economic Affairs.

The Index, presented on May 10, measures the limits of what you can eat, drink and smoke, and does not take into account all manifestations of state paternalism. One aspect that was not featured is the policy on drugs, such as marijuana, which is still very restrictive in many EU countries. Another manifestation of excessive paternalism, occurring in Poland, and not included in the ranking, is the limitation of places where alcoholic beverages can be consumed. These restrictions became well-known, thanks to Marek Tatała, Vice-President of FOR and the initiator of the action “Legally by the Vistula River,” who fought in court for the legality of alcohol consumption on both banks of the river in Warsaw. In Poland, there is no ban on the consumption of alcoholic beverages in the so-called public places. According to the Law on Education in Sobriety and Counteracting Alcoholism, alcohol is prohibited on the streets and in parks. Additional bans may be introduced by local authorities, but this did not happen in Warsaw. So why have the police and the city guard for years been imposing fines for alcohol consumption on the river bank, recognizing it as a street – not applying the law but a dictionary?

As Marek Tatała refused to pay the fine, the case was filed in the district court, and in January 2017, it reached the Supreme Court. It declared the argument presented by Tatała to be correct and that the Flotilla of Vistula Boulevard, on the bank of the river in Warsaw, could not be regarded as a street (as claimed by the police and the municipal police). Citizens are free to do what the law does not expressly forbid, and the public authorities are allowed to do what the law expressly permits, the Supreme Court ruled. Although this statement related clearly solely to the case of alcohol consumption by the Vistula, it is very significant in all situations when citizens operate within the scope of a complex and unclear law created by politicians.

Thanks to the decision of the Supreme Court, on April 27, 2017, the District Court in Warsaw acquitted Marek Tatała. The ruling in this case and the Supreme Court’s decision are important legal arguments confirming that people can consume alcohol and exercise their freedom on both banks of the Vistula, not forgetting their responsibility for their actions – littering and property devastation are shameful and punishable, regardless of whether alcohol is consumed.

The Civic Development Forum is one of the partners of the Index of State Paternalism – the Nanny State Index. We invite you to get acquainted with the full ranking available at www.nannystateindex.org

Marek Tatala
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