New rules being discussed by European Union ministers would ban menthol and slim cigarettes, a move intended to improve the health of Europeans but one that has divided it broadly along cold war lines.
Led by Poland, one of Europe’s biggest tobacco producers, a bloc of former communist countries is fighting a rearguard action against the measures, hoping at least to save slim cigarettes, which are popular with many smokers, often women.
The concern of the rule drafters is that slim cigarettes add an allure that attracts young women to smoking and that menthol cigarettes make it easier for young people of both sexes to start, and become hooked on, smoking.
But Poland stands to lose tobacco industry jobs and some politicians worry about seeming high handed to smokers, an estimated third of the population.
“It’s about freedom, to a large extent,” said Roza Grafin von Thun und Hohenstein, a centre right Polish member of the European Parliament.
Thun said she supported the health impulses behind the draft legislation but after listening to objections from voters at a meeting in Krakow she decided the rules should be relaxed. “People said, ‘When are you going to prohibit us from drinking wine or vodka, or stop us using white sugar? Maybe you will also tell us to go to bed early because going to bed late is also unhealthy’.”
The proposed rules, due to be discussed by ministers yesterday, would also require that pictures of smoking related medical problems and written health warnings cover 75 per cent of the front and back of cigarette packs. This provision may be scaled back after haggling among health ministers who will be debating the rules in Brussels. Any new regulations would require the approval of the European Parliament before becoming law.
Tobacco has been a troublesome issue for the European Union’s executive arm, the European Commission, which has run public health campaigns to cut smoking but only recently removed direct agricultural subsidies for growing tobacco.
The commission came up with the proposed rules in December. They are supported by Ireland, which holds the EU’s rotating presidency and they would save lives and money.
“Approximately 700,000 Europeans die every single year of tobacco related causes,” Ireland’s health minister, James Reilly, said in a speech this year. “Smoking is the largest avoidable health risk in Europe, causing more problems than alcohol, drug abuse and obesity.”
The annual public health care cost attached to smoking in Europe was estimated at 25.3 billion (HK$260 billion), Reilly said. He cited recent studies showing 70 per cent of smokers began their habit before age 18.
Menthol brands make up 18 per cent of Polish consumption.
Europe votes to ban menthol cigarettes – but not until 2022
The European Parliament voted yesterday to ban menthol cigarettes from 2022 but rejected a proposal to regulate electronic cigarettes as medicine.
Its bid to water down proposed tobacco legislation also included scaling down the size of health warnings on packets following intense lobbying by tobacco companies.
European Union member states and the European Commission had proposed some of the world’s toughest anti tobacco laws, including graphic health warnings covering 75 per cent of packets, an effort to deter young people from smoking. But the 750 member parliament rejected the proposals as too harsh.
While agreeing to further negotiations, the parliament said it could not accept a ban on slim cigarettes, would only implement a ban on menthol cigarettes in eight years’ time rather than three years agreed by EU governments, and said health warnings should only cover 65 percent of packets.
Legislators also put new limits on advertising for electronic cigarettes, but stopped short of restricting them to therapeutic use only. The proposed new rules fell short of demands by some health campaigners for a total ban on company branding and logos on packets, along the lines of measures enforced in Australia.
The vote means compromise negotiations will now take place among the parliament, EU member states and the Commission, with the aim of having the legislation, known as the Tobacco Products Directive, passed before May next year.
“This is a shameful day for the European Parliament,” said Carl Schlyter, a member of the Green party from Sweden. ” The centre right majority has done the bidding of the tobacco industry and voted for weaker rules.”
The centre right European People’s Party (EPP), the largest bloc in the parliament, said the vote was appropriate and that the European Union would still end up with some of the world’s strongest tobacco legislation with the proposed law.
“I would have preferred stricter measures, but I welcome the fact that we managed to avoid inappropriate steps such as a call for the introduction of plain packaging,” said Karl Heinz Florenz, who led discussions on the proposals for the EPP.
One of the main concerns of anti smoking lawmakers was parliament’s position on delaying a ban on menthol cigarettes.
Studies show that flavoured cigarettes are becoming increasingly popular among young smokers and often act as a “gateway” to other tobacco products.
Internal Philip Morris documents leaked to the media show that lobbyists held more than 250 meetings with members of parliament to discuss the legislation, especially EPP members.
The company said it was logical that it would lobby against a law that directly impacted its business.
Additional reporting by Bloomberg