EU plans stricter tobacco rules by Daniel Mason

7 May Print

The European Commission’s proposed new rules on tobacco marketing – including a plan to cover at least three-quarters of cigarette packages with health warnings – have been widely welcomed by campaign groups and MEPs, though there have been some calls for even tougher restrictions.

The revisions to the 2001 tobacco directive were presented by health and consumer policy commissioner Tonio Borg yesterday and could come into effect in 2015. According to the commission, 700,000 Europeans die from smoking related illnesses each year and the annual healthcare costs amount to more than €25bn.

If the proposals become law, they will require 75 per cent of cigarette and roll-your own tobacco packaging to be covered with picture and text warnings – compared with the current minimum of 30 per cent on one side and 40 per cent on the other. However, Borg said he would leave it to member states to decide whether to introduce more stringent plain packaging rules.

In addition, strong flavourings such as menthol or vanilla that mask the taste of tobacco will not be allowed. And a European Union-wide ban on oral tobacco known as snus will be maintained, except in Sweden, which has an exemption. Borg said: “Tobacco kills half of its users and is highly addictive. With 70 per cent of the smokers starting before the age of 18, the ambition of today’s proposal is to make tobacco products and smoking less attractive and thus discourage tobacco initiation among young people.”

Borg succeeded John Dalli as the Malta’s commissioner in charge of the directive after the latter was alleged to have been involved in a tobacco industry lobbying scandal earlier this year. The European Public Health Alliance’s secretary-general Monika Kosińska said she hoped the publication of the draft directive marked a “watershed moment” in the relationship between the commission and the tobacco industry and signified a move towards greater transparency.

“Today Borg kept his word that the release of the revised directive would be one of his priorities when taking up the health and consumer portfolio. This long delayed revision is a leap towards better protection of hundreds of millions of people in Europe.” The draft will now be negotiated by the European Parliament and member states, and Kosińska warned that if the legislation was not passed by the end of the parliamentary term in 2014 it would be “back at square one”.

“We are hopeful there is enough political will to complete the process next year and go even further than this proposal, and join Australia and other countries in introducing mandatory plain packaging across the EU.”

Similarly Deborah Arnott, from the campaign group Action on Smoking and Health, said there was “a lot to welcome” in Borg’s proposals but that much of the detail would need to be closely examined. “We are encouraged that despite efforts by the tobacco industry to scupper the directive there should be sufficient time for it to be considered and passed by the current EU parliament,” she said.

Unsurprisingly the tobacco industry was less enthusiastic. British American Tobacco described the bill as “not proportionate”, while cigarette maker Philip Morris said it had “numerous flaws”.

Meanwhile members of the parliament voiced broad support for the directive, though there were some calls for a tougher approach. In a joint statement, MEPs Peter Liese and Richard Seeber from the centre-right European People’s Party, described the proposals as “balanced” and welcomed the plan for larger graphic health warnings on packaging.

“Research has shown that smokers have stopped noticing the written warnings on cigarette packages,” they said. “Shocking pictures, however, will get attention. This is important, especially to stop younger people from starting smoking.” They added that they were “happy” with the omission of plain packaging from the draft directive because its introduction would “abolish the trademarks of tobacco labelling” and therefore create “too many legal problems”.

The proposed stricter controls on packaging should “put an end to the kind of lipstick-style cigarette packs that are marketed at women”, said Linda McAvan MEP, health spokeswoman for the parliament’s Socialists and Democrats group. “We support the commission in its proposal to review packaging,” she said. “Quite often the package design is a way to attract new smokers and public health must be the focus of any new measures.”

She went on: “Likewise, we support the proposed ban on flavours like menthol because it should make cigarettes less appealing to young people. Tobacco products should look and taste like tobacco products – not dressed up to make them more attractive.”

But the plans should have gone further, according to Carl Schlyter MEP, spokesman on health for the Greens. “Tobacco is the largest single cause of avoidable death in Europe and strengthening EU rules on packaging and additives must be a top priority with a view to addressing this. Today’s proposals from the commission are an important first step to this end. However, both the provisions on packaging and on additives will need to be strengthened during the legislative process.”

He said it was “regrettable” that the commission had opted to leave the option of enforcing plain packaging to the “whim” of member states, and called for a ban on all flavours in cigarettes rather than the more limited selection outlined in the proposal.

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