Austria: government chooses tobacco industry interests over citizens’ health

Austria achieved a dismal milestone in March 2018, when its government overturned modest (and long overdue) legislation for smoke free hospitality venues. The new laws had been due to come into force in May 2018.

Among high income countries, Austria already stood as a grim example of woefully inadequate tobacco control. The country has long been the standout laggard in Europe, ranking last on the European tobacco control scale since 2007. The lack of smoke free public spaces to protect the non-smoking majority is a key factor in Austria languishing at the bottom of the scale, resolutely clinging to the last century while many other European countries have achieved considerable progress.

Even taking into account Austria’s appalling record on tobacco control, this is a new low. The repeal of such a basic public health protection is almost unheard of, even in low-income countries with endemic corruption – much less in one of the richest countries in the world. Austria’s comprehensive failure to implement effective tobacco control policies is comparable to the national blind spot in the USA towards gun control; seemingly intractable policy intransigence which is puzzling to rational outside observers.

The decision was the result of an ignominious political compromise made after the 2017 national election (outlined at https://blogs.bmj.com/tc/2018/01/09/austrias-new-government-a-victory-for-the-tobacco-industry-and-public-health-disaster/). Over half a million people signed a petition urging the government to maintain the law. The political party that demanded the repeal as a condition of forming coalition government was the far right Freedom Party (FPO). Its election platform included referenda and ‘direct democracy’, and it cited ‘freedom of choice’ as the reason for demanding the law be repealed. Given the repeal occurred in the face of such strong public opposition, it seems clear that the FPO’s support for such notions depends on factors other than popular sentiment. In a representative survey only 29% approved the cancellation of the law.

Numerous leading Austrian medical and health practitioners, who witness firsthand the devastating individual toll of smoking-caused disease and misery for individuals and their loved ones, also campaigned publicly against rolling back the law.

Faced with a clear choice between popular opinion, scientific evidence and the health and wellbeing of its citizens on the one hand, and craven political expediency and subservience to the tobacco industry on the other, the Austrian government chose the latter. The country continues to make a mockery of its legal obligations under the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), which it ratified in 2005. This abrogation of responsibility should rightly see the Austrian government roundly condemned and censured by the international community when Austria takes the lead at the next FCTC Conference of the Parties, to be held in Geneva in October 2018.

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