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26th Jan 2020

MEPs restrict child-friendly tobacco products

  • MEPs backed the bill to prevent young people from smoking (Photo: photos.de.tibo)

New EU-wide rules to curb smoking are likely to be adopted over the summer as MEPs backed a bill on Wednesday (26 February) to restrict tobacco use, flavourings, adverts, and the sale of electronic cigarettes.

With some 700,000 people dying of tobacco-related diseases every year in the EU, the plan is to prevent young people from picking up the habit in the first place. Around 94 percent of smokers are said to start before the age of 25.

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UK centre-left deputy Linda McAvan, who steered the file through the parliament, described the vote “as a big step forward for tobacco control.” She said it would help to prevent the next generation of smokers from being recruited.

Years of negotiations and intense lobbying have seen some of the European Commission’s original 2012 proposal watered down.

Despite the weakened text, parliament’s vote was still welcomed by anti-tobacco campaigners as an important contribution to saving lives.

“Today marks a genuine turning point for European tobacco control – and a huge stride towards a tobacco free Europe,” said Archie Turnbull, president of the Brussels-based Smoke Free Partnership.

The commission, for its part, had wanted an immediate ban on menthol cigarettes and slims, even larger warning labels, and to bolige people to get a doctor’s note to buy e-cigarettes.

The draft bill instead phases out menthols by 2020, reduces the warning labels on packs, and allows e-cigarettes to be sold without a prescription.

MEPs opted for the four-year delay on menthols because they are “consumed more by older smokers and less by younger people,” said an EU source close to the issue.

Others who called for an immediate ban argue menthols appeal to young people because chemicals suppress the cough reflex.

Poland, one of Europe’s largest tobacco producers, does not want the restrictions.

Philip Morris International (PMI) and British American Tobacco, among others, dominate Poland’s tobacco industry. The country is one of the major producers of menthols sold in the EU.

A EU official said Warsaw is likely to reject the bill in mid-March when it comes up for a qualified majority vote among member states. But it means Poland’s lone vote will not be enough to stop it.

“There is no reason to believe why apart from Poland there would be sufficient other member states to block this,” said the source.

Polish centre-right MEP Roza Grafin von Thun und Hohenstein backed the phase out on menthols, but her office told this website that Poles object to the EU telling them what they can and cannot smoke. An estimated one-third of the population smoke.

The rules

The bill requires mandatory picture and text health warnings covering 65 percent of the front and the back of cigarette packs. Packs with fewer than 20 cigarettes cannot be sold.

Cigarettes and roll your own tobacco won’t be allowed to taste like chocolate and other similar flavors but exceptions are made for pipe tobacco, cigars, cigarillos and smokeless products.

Rules for the electronic cigarettes are more relaxed in what is seen as a triumph for the industry by some MEPs.

“They won a huge victory,” Swedish Green MEP Carl Schlyter, a vice chair on the EU parliament's health committee, told this website.

“All member states wanted them to be approved in the pharma logic because the purpose of e-cigarettes is to help people to stop smoking or have yet another alternative to stop smoking,” he added.

The parliament instead buckled under industry pressure to make them a consumer product, he said.

The final compromise allows companies to sell electronic cigarettes as normal products without any medical oversight, unless they specifically advertise them as a way to stop smoking.

EU commissioner for health Tonio Borg welcomed the new safety and quality control rules on the devices, which he says will protect consumers from harm.

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