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13th Apr 2024

MEPs approve disputed tobacco law

  • Some 700,000 people die in the EU each year to tobacco-related diseases, says the European Commission (Photo: dearanxiety)

The European Parliament on Tuesday (8 October) backed rules to tighten the marketing and labelling of tobacco products, but the original European Commission proposal was substantially weakened in the process.

The changes include bigger warnings on cigarette packs and an eventual ban on menthol and other flavorings but do not introduce tough limits on electronic cigarettes.

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Critical MEPs describe the voting result as a victory for Big Tobacco.

The heavily lobbied bill aims to reduce the number of annual smoking deaths in the EU from the current 700,000 and help prevent young people from taking up the habit in the first place.

“Other countries such as Canada, Australia or the USA have far lower rates of smoking than the EU, so reducing smoking is attainable,” said European Commissioner for Health, Tonio Borg, in his opening address to the plenary before the vote.

Borg said the three countries reduced smoking by including large picture warnings and by putting restrictions on flavours.

But approved amendments tabled by conservative, centre-right, and liberal MEPs weakened the commission’s original plans to slap an immediate ban on menthols and slims, regulate e-cigarettes as medicinal products, and increase the warning size labels, among other legislative measures.

Menthol-flavoured cigarettes, which are said to facilitate smoking in young people because it numbs the cough reflex, will instead be phased out over an eight-year period.

Advertising for electronic cigarettes will also be restricted, but a proposal that would have seen restricted them to medical use only was rejected.

Borg noted e-cigarettes have fewer regulatory restrictions than shower gel or a bar of soap, despite being a product that sees nicotine and other substances inhaled directly into the lungs.

MEPs also removed a number of so-called delegated acts, preventing EU lawmakers from more easily updating the directive after it becomes law.

“We the parliament have taken away the opportunity for the commission to act in the interest of public health when situations change,” Swedish Green MEP Carl Schlyter, a vice chair on the public health committee, told this website.

He said the bill is weaker than the commission’s proposal but that at least the MEPs agreed to ban all additives in cigarettes.

“It limits the tobacco company’s possibilities to add things in cigarettes to make them more attractive,” said Schlyter.

Additives essential to produce tobacco, such as sugar, would be authorised, as would other explicitly listed substances in stated concentrations.

Packs of fewer than 20 cigarettes would be banned though deputies decided to keep slim cigarettes but slapped a ban on packaging designed to attract young women.

Warning labels are to cover 65 percent of the pack - down from the 75 percent originally proposed by the commission. Such labels currently cover around 30-40 percent of a pack.

“The tobacco industry lobbied until yesterday hard to get them [warning labels] to move to the bottom so that you can’t see them in shops,” said UK centre-left MEP Linda McAvan, the parliament’s lead negotiator on the file,

Lobbying

McAvan, for her part, described the lobbying tactics from e-cigarette companies as particularly aggressive.

Emails sent to her from the UK-based e-cigarette company Totally Wicked displayed subject lines like “Better read this McAvan. Because ignoring it will be your downfall.”

Green MEPs last week said the tobacco lobbying on deputies requires greater transparency and proposed to revise the parliament’s code of conduct rules by introducing a zero tolerance level for gifts received by the industry.

MEPs are entitled to receive gifts worth up to €150.

Philip Morris International (PMI), the world’s largest tobacco company, reportedly met with some 233 MEPs in an effort to weaken the bill.

It told this website that the broad media allegations of extensive lobbying are unfounded. It noted that it spent between €1 to €1.25 million on lobbying efforts in 2012.

But transparency watchdog Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) on Tuesday denounced the stated figure as bogus.

The watchdog says the real estimated costs of PMI lobbying in 2012 might have been €350,000 higher than declared.

Negotiations with member states on the bill are due to start next with both sides hoping to have an agreement before the end of the year.

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