EU tables new rules to deter smokers

BMJ 2012; 345 doi: (Published 21 December 2012) Cite this as: BMJ 2012;345:e8660
  1. Rory Watson
  1. 1Brussels

All cigarette packets sold in the European Union will have to carry larger and clearer health warnings, under draft legislation presented by the European Commission on 19 December.1 The commission also proposes a ban on the use of strong flavourings such as vanilla, strawberry, and menthol to mask the taste of tobacco.

The wide ranging proposals look to strengthen existing pan-European rules on tobacco dating back to 2001 and aim, by lessening the glamour associated with smoking, to prevent young people from taking up the habit.

Presenting the planned new restrictions, Tonio Borg, the EU health commissioner, said, “The figures speak for themselves. Tobacco kills half of its users and is highly addictive. With 70% of smokers starting before the age of 18, the ambition of today’s proposal is to make tobacco products and smoking less attractive and thus discourage tobacco initiation among young people.”

The latest proposal takes account of the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which all EU countries have ratified and which came into force in 2005. It also follows a widespread public consultation by the commission that elicited 85 000 responses.

However, doubts about the commission’s determination to meet its pledge to table new legislation on tobacco products by the end of 2012 surfaced in late October, when the previous health commissioner, John Dalli, unexpectedly resigned.2 The resignation prompted fears that the proposal might not be approved by the time of the European parliamentary elections in June 2014 and would have to be reintroduced into the new legislature, leading to further delays in its implementation.

Dalli’s sudden departure came after an investigation by the EU’s antifraud office into bribery claims involving Swedish Match, manufacturer of a brand of the oral tobacco product snus, which is legal in Sweden but banned elsewhere in the European Union. Dalli strongly rejected any allegations and has taken legal action.

His successor and fellow countryman, Borg, Malta’s former foreign minister, who only took up his new post at the end of November, emphasised that the commission would stick to its commitment.

“The European Commission had promised a proposal on tobacco products by the end of 2012, and that’s what I’m presenting today to health ministers and the European parliament,” he said as he outlined the new restrictions.

These will require all packets of cigarettes and roll your own tobacco to contain a combined picture and text health warning covering 75% of the front and back of the package. Current information on tar, nicotine, and carbon monoxide, which is considered to be misleading, will be replaced by a statement on the side of the pack that tobacco smoke contains more than 70 substances that cause cancer.

The draft legislation does not propose plain, standardised packaging, as Australia has recently introduced,3 but individual EU governments may introduce it if they wish.

It also covers nicotine containing products, such as electronic cigarettes. Below a certain nicotine threshold they could be sold over the counter as long as they contain health warnings. Above that threshold they would have to be authorised as medicinal products. The EU ban on snus, apart from in Sweden, would remain.

Antismoking campaigners have given a generally warm welcome to the proposals. Deborah Arnott, chief executive of the UK group ASH (Action on Smoking and Health), said, “There is a lot to welcome in the proposed updated directive . . . Despite efforts by the tobacco industry to scupper the directive, there should be sufficient time for it to be considered and passed by the current EU parliament.”

To become law the draft proposal must be approved by the European parliament, which is planning to organise an initial public hearing on 25 February, and by EU member governments. If adopted in 2014 it would come into force a year or 18 months later.


Cite this as: BMJ 2012;345:e8660