HEALTH warnings covering 65% of cigarette packs are likely to come into force and menthol cigarettes could be banned across Europe following an EU vote today.
The European Parliament in Strasbourg voted on a raft of measures to help curb smoking but stopped short of introducing plain packaging for cigarettes and tobacco.
Legislators put new limits on advertising for electronic cigarettes but have so far rejected proposals for them to be regarded as medicinal products.
Menthol and other flavours will be banned from 2022 but there is to be no ban on packs of slim cigarettes.
MEPs voted to put health warnings on 65% of each cigarette pack, as opposed to the proposed 75%.
At present, warnings should cover at least 30% of the front and 40% of the back of cigarette packs, with a border surrounding them.
Today’s vote also includes a ban on words like “light”, “mild” and “low tar” and a ban on oral tobacco although Sweden would retain its exemption.
Today marked the European Parliament’s first reading of the draft tobacco directive which could become law in 2014.
There will now be further negotiations with the Council - the grouping of relevant EU ministers.
‘Disproportionate’ say tobacco firms
Health campaigners welcomed the news but British American Tobacco said the agreement went too far.
A spokesman said: “We’ve always said that we support sensible, balanced regulation that takes into account all the people it will impact before being decided on and implemented.
“We have made it clear throughout this process that many of the proposals on the table were not proportionate, were unlikely to succeed in addressing public health objectives, and would lead to an increase in black market sales.
“Although there are clearly many differing opinions among MEPs when it comes to this directive, it appears as if some sensible modifications have been made.
“However, much of this directive remains disproportionate and could be in breach of European law.
“For example, health warnings covering more than half of the cigarette pack goes well beyond what is needed to fully inform consumers of the health risks and a ban on mentholated cigarettes will only increase the demand for black market goods.
“The weight of evidence shows that smokers of menthol cigarettes face no higher risk of tobacco-related diseases than smokers of non-menthol cigarettes, that they find it no more difficult to quit and that the availability of menthol cigarettes does not increase youth initiation of smoking.
“Banning menthol in cigarettes is not justifiable based on the available scientific evidence.”
On packaging, the spokesman said the firm “strongly opposed the standardisation of our products.
“No evidence has been presented to justify why it is deemed necessary to restrict the dimensions or colours of a package or the way in which it can be opened.”
E-cig plan could be changed
The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) in the UK has said it intends to make e-cigarettes medicinal products but today’s decision could alter those plans.
An MHRA spokesman said: “The UK Government’s position is that the public health priority of reducing the harms of smoking can best be achieved by the regulation of nicotine containing products (NCPs), including electronic cigarettes, under the medicines framework and supports the European Commission’s Tobacco Products Directive.”
Some campaigners had called for e-cigarettes to be subjected to the same regulation as nicotine replacement therapies (NRT) such as patches and gum.
E-cigarettes consist of a battery, a cartridge containing nicotine, a solution of propylene glycol or glycerine mixed with water, and an atomiser to turn the solution into a vapour.
Liberal Democrat MEP Chris Davies said after the vote: “E-cigs can be a game-changer in the fight against smoking. Hundreds of former smokers have written to tell me that they have helped them give up cigarettes when nothing else worked.”
Conservative MEP Martin Callanan said: “Forcing e-cigs off the shelves would have been totally crazy.
“These are products that have helped countless people stop smoking more harmful cigarettes and yet some MEPs wanted to make them harder to manufacture than ordinary tobacco.”
Adrian Everett, chief executive of e-cigarette brand E-Lites, said: “This is a fantastic result for public health and the millions of smokers around Europe who are switching to e-cigarettes.
“We would have been in the absurd position of the Department of Health making it much easier to make and sell tobacco cigarettes than e-cigarettes which are vastly less harmful.”
Tom Rolfe, president of the Skycig brand of e-cigarettes said: “Skycig welcome any regulations which will help us to ensure that under-18s cannot access electronic cigarettes and to ensure that all e-cigarette companies must produce products of a high standard, in the same way that Skycig and other reputable e-cigarette companies do.”
Deborah Arnott, chief executive of Action on Smoking and Health, said: “We are pleased that MEPs recognised the importance of increasing the size of health warnings and that these will be placed at the top of the packs to make them more visible.
“Despite unprecedented levels of lobbying by the tobacco industry to undermine the directive it is gratifying that MEPs stood firm on many of the key measures.”
Mixed feelings from smokers
Angela Harbutt, campaigns manager of the smokers’ group Forest, said: “Consumers will have mixed feelings.
“We welcome the fact that some products have been reprieved while menthol cigarettes have been given a stay of execution, but consumers are still angry that the EU is trying to restrict or ban products they have purchased and enjoyed for many years.
“Prohibition doesn’t work and products that are banned will almost certainly be available on the unregulated black market.”
Maura Gillespie, policy programme director at the British Heart Foundation, said: “MEPs have missed an opportunity to make real inroads into curbing the number of young people taking up smoking.
“It’s positive news that cigarette warnings are getting substantially bigger but MEPs could and should have gone further.
“Research shows health warnings that take up 75% or more of a cigarette box are more effective at reducing the attractiveness of products among our young people.
“The ban on flavoured tobacco is also welcome but it’s extremely disappointing slim cigarettes have not been banned.
“They’re dangerous products - often targeted at young women - that can mislead people about the harms of smoking.
“Now it’s up to the UK Government to show they’re made of stronger stuff and introduce standardised packs, stripped of attractive branding, without delay.”