Consumer have a lot of demands towards the European Commission, but one key question really needs to be asked. It’s a question of trust. There is this truism that says that you only notice what you are missing when you no longer have it at your disposal.
This is the impression you get when you notice the immense choice at our disposal when we go to supermarkets. Progress is not only visible in the fact that there are oranges, spices or Spanish wine, but also to the fact that there are several choices for each product. Compared to the bleak reality of countries where free trade and competition are a foreign word, our shelves are colourful, and have a price-performance ratio our grandparents could only have dreamt of.
But not everyone shares this enthusiasm for market-economy progress. For “public health defenders” and globalisation critics, our freedom of choice is problematic, for those who make a free choice will inevitably choose things that others do not like. Over the years, European Union institutions have shown the same level of distrust towards the individual.
At the end of the 20th century it seemed clear that our lifestyles were not necessarily the healthiest: we drank, smoked and ate too much. For this reason, authorities and politicians relied spreading information: an informed consumer is free to make his own decisions, but he must know what health damage he can suffer.
For a long time, everyone thought this starting point was rational. But because a minority of people continued to treat their own bodies poorly, regardless of the consequences, education became paternalism.
New tobacco regulations show well how paternalism has replaced information. Before the European Union’s 2015 tobacco regulation, the commercial cigarette packet indicated how much nicotine and tar were contained in each cigarette. Consumers who wanted to reduce their nicotine and tar consumption could find out on the box which correspond to their preferences.
The 2015 Tobacco Directive changed this: politicians believed that cigarettes with lower values could be considered “healthier” and abolished the contents to replace them with even bigger warnings. The idea seems to be that anything inhaled as smoke must be equally bad. The fact that this has no scientific basis does not seem to bother anyone in Brussels.
But well, with tobacco consumption at around 15-20% it is likely that most readers of this article will not necessarily feel addressed by this example. With products such as alcohol or sugar this is different. Even though an overwhelming majority of people is aware that one has to deal with both in a rational way, the Nanny State punishes through minimum pricing, higher taxes or reduced availability.
The latest proposals on limiting the ability of companies to market their products displays this type of distrust of the consumer: if we limit marketing, then it can only be because we believe that consumers are so brainwashed that they are unable to make up their own minds. That’s why we’ll make up their minds for them, presumably.
The question that any European Commission, which is at the origin of most regulations and proposals of this sort, needs to answer, is this: do you trust the consumer? Do you trust the consumer in his or her ability to make rational choices for him- or herself? And if not, who do you believe makes better choices for them?
Don’t misunderstand me: be it sugar, alcohol or tobacco, everything must be enjoyed with moderation and caution. Consumers should inform themselves consequences of their actions, but they should remain free to make their own choices. If not, we will be the victims of a patronising state that transforms our colourful supermarkets into barren and educational wastelands.