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30th Jun 2022

EU to ban menthol cigarettes, impose scary pictures

  • Borg shows example of what cigarette packs will look like in the EU 2014 or 2015 (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

All cigarette packs in the EU from 2015 onward will be plastered with images of diseased body parts, menthol, vanilla and slim cigarettes will be banned, while snus - a type of mouth tobacco - will not be sold outside Sweden, under European Commission proposals out on Wednesday (19 December).

The bill comes after a scandal which saw the health commissioner, Malta's John Dalli, lose his job because he allegedly solicited a bribe to pull the snus ban.

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It is also a big defeat for Sweden and for the tobacco industry - the commission estimates there will be 10 million fewer smokers five years after it comes into force.

The menthol ban alone will wipe out 20 percent of the market in some EU countries, such as Poland.

Dalli's successor, Tonio Borg, noted that smoking kills 700,000 people a year in Europe. "This means that a city the size of Palermo is wiped off the map every single year," he said.

He added the law is aimed at preventing young people from getting into the habit.

A former smoker himself, he said: "It's not because we treat people as if they were stupid, but we want to help EU citizens come to the right decision ... Smokers should not be treated like the lepers of modern times, but at the same time we should protect citizens who do not want to smoke."

He also said he did not water down Dalli's earlier draft of the bill in any way, a claim backed up by Dalli.

"I have seen a version of what has been proposed. I cannot see any relevant changes from my [earlier] proposal," Dalli told EUobserver by email.

Wednesday's bill sets the scene for fresh lobbying and politicking in the European Parliament and in EU countries' embassies in Brussels, which can still amend the law.

The centre-right EPP group in parliament immediately welcomed Borg's "balanced" text. But the centre-left S&D faction said it should force cigarettes to be sold in plain packs with the brand indicated only by a line of text, as in Australia.

For its part, cigarette maker Philip Morris, which made a profit of almost €7 billion last year, said the directive's "numerous flaws need to be addressed."

British American Tobacco (also €7 billion) said the bill is "not proportionate" and promised "to make our voice heard over the course of the next year" in the EU institutions.

In a sign of the tobacco lobby's power, Borg noted that he met on two occasions with Swedish ministers who urged him to lift the snus ban.

Tobacco lobbyists also get frequent meetings with top advisors to Borg's boss, commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso.

But for Epha, a Brussels-based anti-smoking NGO, Borg's bill indicates that big tobacco's message is falling on deaf ears.

"I hope this is a watershed moment for the relationship between the commission and the tobacco industry," its director, Monika Kosinska, said. "The directive proves that the commission did not listen to the lobbyists," Epha's Javier Delgado Rivera added.

Zooming in on snus, users insert pellets of the stuff against their gums, where tiny crystals on the surface of the product lacerate the skin to get nicotine into their bloodstream.

It is loved by Swedish right-wingers who see it as part of Swedish national identity.

It is also popular with children because they can use it, for instance, during class in school without the teacher being able to see.

"There is evidence to show that if you were to introduce snus into the European market, it would be a great success," Borg said.

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