Four months after health commissioner John Dalli resigned over alleged industry attempts to influence the EU Tobacco Products Directive, European lawmakers are preparing to re-examine the draft legislation.
A majority of European lawmakers appear to back further EU proposals for tobacco regulation but face opposition from pro-industry colleagues and the 100-strong cohort of Brussels tobacco lobbyists nicknamed “Goliath” by anti-smoking campaigners.
The stated aim of the revision to the Tobacco Products Directive is to make smoking and other tobacco items less attractive, especially to young people, thereby curbing the estimated 700,000 deaths and €25 billion costs related to smoking-induced illnesses.
The proposed measures include large pictorial health warnings and a ban on some cigarettes and roll-your-own tobaccos with taste-masking flavours.
“This is not regulating for the sake of regulating,” Health and Consumer Policy Commissioner Tonio Borg told a conference in the European Parliament on Monday (26 February).
“The main aim is saving lives,” said Borg, who replaced Dalli as Malta's commissioner in Brussels last November.
Borg said he hoped the revised directive would reduce the number of smokers in the EU by 2% over five years.
If approved by the EU legislative and European ministers, the regulation would compel tobacco manufacturers to include shocking pictorial warnings of the product's health effects on its packaging across the European Union. It would further ban additives with ill-health effects, "marketing" additives such as vitamins or caffeine, and so-called characterising flavours, seen as attractive to younger people.
“Tobacco should taste like tobacco, not like vanilla or sweets,” Borg said.
Despite the widespread will to reduce the harmful effects of smoking, EU lawmakers are expected to face difficulties in passing further strengthened regulation through the EU Council of Ministers, especially since the economies of a number of member states rely on tobacco production. Analysts expect opposition from Poland.
Irish Health Minister James Reilly, who will lead the discussions in Council, said the proposal was a “compromise”, expressing his desire for harsher rules. “But we are aware of the political pragmatism needed to get this moving.”
Carl Schlyter, a Swedish Green MEP, called for stricter regulation on point of sale advertising, a ban on all flavourings, and the introduction of plain package warnings, a position supported by Northern Irish SInn Féin MEP Martina Anderson.
“I concur with comments made on 100% coverage of the package with warnings,” Anderson said.
Borg denied claims the rules on packaging would limit freedom of choice. “We don’t ban but regulate. This is not prohibition,” he said.
The tobacco industry also says that pictorial warnings do not deter potential consumers, making such regulation unnecessary and "disproportionate," claims Borg denies.
“These arguments are put forward because the directive will make a difference,” he said.
Linda McAvan, the British labour MEP charged with balancing concerns in the draft amended by the Parliament, said there were “issues to discuss”, including regulation of e-cigarettes and packaging. Overall she praised the “good proposals” to curb the take-up of smoking by younger people.
“Surveys have shown that almost all smokers do not want their children to start,” she said.
The tobacco industry and MEPs expressed concern the regulation could damage the multibillion euro industry and cut job figures just as the EU grapples with the economic crisis.
A representative of the European cigarettes industry, Michiel Reerink, said: “This proposal will not achieve its stated objectives,” adding that it would have “negative consequences” on the economic revenue of member states, and infringe freedom of choice.
Italian MEP Oreste Rossi of the eurosceptic EDF group said the regulation could promote the trade in counterfeit cigarettes into the EU, and a subsequent loss of tax revenue.
The proposals include regulation on cross-border internet sale and further measures to combat illegal trade, Reilly countered.
Borg also told the European lawmakers to be wary of the “economic arguments” for less regulation which were “very persuasive in an economic crisis.”
As well as curbing the estimated 700,000 yearly smoking-related deaths, Borg said a crude cost-benefit analysis came up in favour of further regulation. He cited the burden of smoking-related illnesses on health care services, and the loss of economic activity through more sick-days.
Reilly said it was an economic as well as ethical “no-brainer”, saying smokers paid some €20 billion annually in tax but health costs associated with smoking came to €23 billion.
Borg estimated that a further €8 billion a year was lost from falls in economic productivity due to smoking-related illnesses.
Under the proposals the EU will uphold its ban on snus, which Swedes are allowed to use exceptionally due to their tradition with the oral tobacco product.
“Snus is the least harmful tobacco product but the only one which is banned outside Sweden,” said Swedish MEP Christopher Fjellner of the European People’s Party group. “Imagine if we were to ban French wine but allow vodka."
“I must be one of the few Swedes who did not want to export the product,” Schlyter said, adding: “We should not spread bad habits”.
Frédérique Riess, a Belgian liberal MEP, questioned the proposal's prospects in the Council, given the “reluctance of some member states” to accept it, including Poland.
Danish MEP Anna Rosbach of the Conservatives and Reformists group asked: "Are we willing to give up the revenue from smoking?" She added: "National treasuries need tobacco revenue... the problem is not tobacco but nicotine." She called on the EU to "inform instead of ban", questioning whether it was the EU's role to ban products.
Italian MEP Giancarlo Scottà of the Europe of Freedom and Democracy group said: "I agree with the goal but don't forget the economic aspects of the sector... Protecting consumers shouldn't blind us to lost jobs."
Florence Bertelli Kemp, director of the Smoke Free Partnership, called the tobacco lobby "Goliath", saying it sows "myths and lies to create fear". She called for MEPs to strengthen the regulation and introduce plain packaging.
Irish Health Minister James Reilly said: "There are other ways for economies than selling a carcinogen." He added stricter regulation was an "economic no-brainer" as well as an "ethical no-brainer".
Dr Jean King, director of Tobacco Control, said tobacco products was "no normal industry", which had presented "distorted, biased research". "The EU should hold up best practices and standards", she said, also calling for a full disclosure of lobbyists interests within the tobacco industry.
Luk Jossens, an advocacy officer at the Association of European Cancer Leagues, said plain packaging would not increase illicit trade, saying that "every pack is easy to counterfeit".
Dr David Hammond, associate professor in the School of Public Health and Health Systems at the University of Waterloo, Canada, said advertising had contributed heavily to the rise of smoking and so should be strongly regulated. He said in the absence of traditional advertising cigarette companies had moved towards clever packaging and lifestyle imagery.
"There is evidence that brand packaging makes people more likely to smoke, especially amongst young people", he added.