Will tobacco-friendly Switzerland change its tune on smoking laws?

Presently, 11 cantons ban cigarette sales to minors, while 12 have fixed the age limit at 16. Three cantons – Geneva, Schwyz and Appenzell Inner Rhoden - have no official age limit. Keystone / Martin Ruetschi

Switzerland is one of a handful of countries that has not ratified a major global tobacco control treaty. Why has it dragged its feet, and is change in the air? 

This content was published on September 16, 2019 - 15:00

Switzerland signed the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC)External link 15 years ago but has yet to ratify it, as do a handful of tobacco-producing countries such as the United States, Argentina, Malawi and Cuba. 

Controlling tobacco use to protect the population’s health has been a long, complicated balancing act in the Alpine country, which is an arch-defender of economic and individual freedoms and home to tobacco companies like Philip Morris. 

Almost one in three Swiss adultsExternal link (27.1%) regularly smokes or consumes tobacco in some form – a stable rate, almost 8% above the global average.

The WHOExternal link says that while Switzerland is strong when it comes to anti-smoking campaigns on TV and radio, it lacks a total ban on smoking in public places (i.e. 100% smoke-free with no designated smoking rooms or smoking areas). Although tobacco ads have been banned on the airways, they are allowed in other media, and there are no bans on tobacco promotion and sponsorship.

Change the law? 

The FCTC lays down minimum requirementsExternal link for ratification, such as health warnings accompanying all tobacco advertising and, as appropriate, promotion and sponsorship. 

Ultimately, though, it’s up to each state to decide if it can comply with the treaty. Vinayak Prasad, who leads the WHO Tobacco Free Initiative (TFI), says that Switzerland could ratify the FCTC now if it wanted to, without additional legislation. But Switzerland generally only ratifies a global treaty after having adapted national laws to bring them in line with the agreement.

Parliament is currently considering a revised draft law on tobaccoExternal link, which may lead to FCTC ratification and is due to be discussed by the Senate on Tuesday. The main points in the original draft include a nationwide ban on the sale of tobacco products to people under 18 and regulations on electronic cigarettes and tobacco products for heating. 

Previous attempts by parliament to tighten the tobacco law and bring Swiss law into line with the WHO treaty have come up against a bloc of right-of-centre parliamentarians fearful of the economic consequences. 

The Federal Office of Public HealthExternal link holds sway over the ratification decision. Earlier this year, it outlined five measures it wants introduced into the tobacco law to comply with WHO’s minimum requirements. 

These include: health warnings to accompany any tobacco promotion or sponsorship; fewer purchase incentives on cigarettes; forcing the tobacco industry to report how much it spends on advertising, promotion and sponsorship; limitations on advertising, promotion and sponsorship of tobacco in newspapers, magazines and on the internet; and banning tobacco firms from sponsoring international events or activities in Switzerland. 

+ A graphic look at global smoking trends

The issue of tobacco sponsorship made waves in July when Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis was forced to dump Philip Morris as a sponsor of the Swiss pavilion at the 2020 Expo in Dubai, after negative headlines and criticism from health organisations.  

This incident may have influenced Senate committee members, who ended deliberations on the draft bill last month by calling for amendments to tighten the law, including restrictions on tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship to “better protect young people”, as well as a tax on electronic cigarettes. 

“The conditions for Switzerland's ratification of the FCTC are thus met,” the committee said in a statementExternal link

While welcoming this “step in the right directionExternal link”, an alliance of NGOs said the commission’s minimalist proposal was not enough and that a total ban on tobacco advertising, as supported by 58% of the Swiss population in a 2016 pollExternal link, was still necessary. 

Other campaigners have been pushing hard on this issue. Last week the organisers of a people’s initiative handed in 113,000 signatures to try to force a national vote on a complete ban on tobacco advertising in order to protect youngsters. 

‘Little by little’ 

It remains unclear whether this groundswell of support will be enough to tighten Swiss law and eventually lead to ratification of the FCTC, or how soon that will happen. After this week’s Senate debate, the law will move to the House of Representatives, but a final vote is not expected before next spring or summer.

Ratification of the FCTC will only be clear “once the legislative process is over”, declared health office spokesman Adrien Kay. And if Swiss law is compatible, ratification probably won’t happen before 2022.

“The situation has been slowly changing in Switzerland, like with the law on passive smoking,” said Addiction Switzerland spokesperson Monique Portner-Helfer. “In Switzerland norms have changed. It's now more normal for people not to smoke. But the politicians are slow to catch up. We hope that little by little things will change.”

Financial impact of tobacco

Smoking is responsible for almost 4% of the country’s medical bill and 14% of deaths, according to a Swiss study.  This amounts to a total of CHF5 billion a year, it estimated. 

A KPMG report from October 2017 said Swiss-based tobacco firms – including Philip Morris, British American Tobacco and Japan Tobacco International – contribute CHF6.3 billion ($6.4 billion) a year to the Swiss economy, employing 11,500 people. 

A 2015 government studyExternal link estimated that if Switzerland ratified the FCTC, it could reduce annual tax revenues by CHF111-170 million a year between 2018-2060 and result in 340-540 job losses in the tobacco sector. It would also lower tobacco consumption by 5.4-9.9%.

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