The European Parliament scaled back plans for more stringent regulation of the tobacco industry, setting up a clash with national governments over draft legislation meant to curb smoking in Europe.
The European Union assembly rejected a proposal to regulate nicotine-containing goods like electronic cigarettes as medicines, opting instead to apply rules on general product safety. As part of a plan to ban the sale of cigarettes and roll-your-own tobacco with characterizing flavors, the 28-nation Parliament also voted to phase out menthol cigarettes over eight years rather than three years agreed by EU governments.
Linda McAvan, a U.K. Socialist who steered the draft law through the EU Parliament and opposed the looser provisions for electronic and menthol cigarettes, expressed satisfaction that the assembly upheld two central positions of governments regarding labels. These would require that cigarette packages feature a combined pictorial and text alert covering 65 percent of the front and back and that the health warnings appear at the top of the packs. Under current EU rules, anti-smoking images on packages are optional while text warnings are mandatory.
“This is a big step forward compared to the status quo,” McAvan, who defeated other amendments to limit the pictorial and text warning to 50 percent of the packages and allow the health warnings to appear at the bottom, told reporters after the vote today in Strasbourg, France. “I lost some and I won some.”
The stance by the EU’s only directly elected institution follows months of industry lobbying over the latest bid to prevent young people from starting to smoke in Europe, where tobacco-related illnesses are estimated to kill one person every minute.
British American Tobacco Plc, Europe’s largest cigarette maker, praised what it called “sensible modifications” by the European parliamentarians to the draft EU law while saying it is still too tough.
“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,” London-based BAT said in an e-mailed statement.
The Parliament’s position also comes after an agreement reached among EU governments in June, six months after the draft law was proposed by the European Commission, the bloc’s Brussels-based regulatory arm. The differences between the Parliament and national governments must be resolved in negotiations that both sides aim to complete by May 2014, when the assembly holds elections on a new five-year legislative term.
McAvan said a deal on the draft legislation, known as a directive, could be reached by year-end.
“I hope we can get a tobacco-products directive for Christmas,” she said. “I think we can make it.”
The biggest hurdle to an agreement between the Parliament and governments is the treatment of e-cigarettes, according to McAvan. E-cigarettes deliver nicotine through inhaled vapor.
The Parliament voted to scrap a plan, proposed by the commission and endorsed by governments, to regulate these goods under a 2001 EU law on medicinal products. This veto initiative was led by right-of-center members who argued that e-cigarettes help curb tobacco smoking.
“E-cigs can be a game changer in the fight against smoking,” said Chris Davies, a U.K. member of the EU Parliament’s pro-business Liberal group. “They are successful because they are not medicines but products that smokers enjoy using as an alternative to cigarettes.”
Tobacco kills as many as 695,000 people a year in the EU, or one person every 45 seconds, according to the commission, which says a third of Europeans still smoke. Smoking is the largest avoidable health risk in Europe, causing more problems than alcohol, drugs, high blood pressure, high cholesterol or obesity, according to the commission.
Cancers as well as cardiovascular and respiratory diseases are linked to tobacco use. Saying that 70 percent of smokers start before the age of 18, the commission described the goal of its draft legislation as to make tobacco goods less attractive to young people.
On another element of the draft legislation, which would revise a 2001 EU law, the Parliament agreed with governments and the commission that cigarette packages should also have to include an information message that tobacco smoke contains more than 70 cancer-causing substances.
The position of the Parliament and governments regarding the size of the combined pictorial and text alert on packages scales back the original proposal by the commission, which wanted 75 percent of the front and back of packs to be covered.
The EU parliamentarians and national governments also agree to let slim cigarettes remain on the market. The commission proposed to ban slims.
The EU Parliament’s vote is “a small positive for the U.K. tobacco manufacturers, on balance,” Chris Wickham, an analyst at Oriel Securities in London, said in an e-mailed statement.