Today sees the publication of the Nanny State Index, now in its fourth edition. Launched in 2016, it looks at the over-regulation of food, soft drinks, vaping, tobacco and alcohol in thirty European countries. Since the last edition was published in 2019, the COVID-19 pandemic has led governments around the world to impose coercive controls on an almost unprecedented scale.
The index does not include anti-Covid policies that are expected to be a genuinely temporary response to the pandemic, but the outlook is bleak nonetheless. Almost without exception, governments across Europe are adopting higher sin taxes and more prohibitions.
Norway tops the league table, although that could change once it legalises e-cigarettes. Lithuania, with its heavy temperance legislation, is again in second place while Finland drops to third. The top of the table is dominated by Scandinavia and Eastern Europe. Greece is the only country from southern Europe in the top half, largely thanks to its very high sin taxes on alcohol and tobacco. At the more liberal end of the table, the best countries are a mixed bag. Germany has performed the extraordinary feat of having the lowest score in all four categories of the index.
Hovering above it we find the Czech Republic, Luxembourg, Spain and Italy, all of which have done well in previous editions. Denmark is just above this group and is the only Scandinavian country not in the top ten. That seems likely to change in the future, however. Like the Netherlands, Denmark has a slew of hardcore nanny state policies in the pipeline.
Twelve countries now have taxes on sugary drinks, ranging from €.05 per liter in Hungary to €.30 in Ireland. Several countries also tax artificially sweetened drinks. And thirteen countries tax e-cigarette fluid (up from eleven in 2019), with tax rates ranging from €.06 per ml in Hungary to €.30 in Finland and Portugal.
Germany is now the only country in the EU that could be described as smoker-friendly. Previous contenders Austria and the Czech Republic have both introduced draconian smoking bans in recent years. The number of vaper-friendly countries is also dwindling. Seventeen of the thirty countries in the index have made it illegal to use an e-cigarette wherever smoking is prohibited. Sixteen countries have a total or near-total ban on e-cigarette advertising.
Many in the ‘public health’ establishment will see this as progress, but what has it achieved? The most nannying countries at the top of the table do not have longer life expectancies, lower smoking rates, less obesity or fewer alcohol-related deaths than the ones at the bottom. Efforts to stamp out vaping can barely be described as paternalist at all since they have the unintended consequence of encouraging smoking.
Alas, that is not the only unintended consequence of these policies. Sin taxes raise the cost of living and hurt the poor. High prices fuel the black market and lead to corruption. Advertising bans restrict competition and stifle innovation. Smoking and vaping bans cause serious damage to the hospitality industry. Excessive regulation creates excessive bureaucracy and drains police resources.
Despite all the downsides, the story of the Nanny State Index is one of constantly expanding big government trampling freedom. Occasionally a government will grudgingly reduce taxes on alcohol or e-cigarette fluid in response to a surge in cross-border shopping or black market activity. Once in a while, a politician will water down their plans to ban smoking outdoors or introduce a sugar tax. Now and again, the courts will rule some nanny state initiative to be unconstitutional. But such small victories are rare. All the momentum is with the paternalists of ‘public health’.
The blame for this lies overwhelmingly with domestic governments, not with the European Union. The EU banned menthol cigarettes in May 2020, but it cannot be held responsible for regressive taxation, draconian smoking bans and excessive regulation of alcohol and food. The gulf between the freest countries at the bottom of the table and the least liberal countries at the top is almost entirely the result of decisions made by their own governments.
As the world gradually recovers from the pandemic, it is crucial that all liberties are restored. Wouldn’t it be nice if a few other freedoms that were taken for granted until recently could be also be returned to us?