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European Union Confused Over Smoking and Health

Posted on Oct 21, 2013 by Michael Loftus

The European Union has recently found itself in the uncomfortable situation of facing in several directions at once with regard to its position on health and smoking. On the one hand, it has an expensive and well regarded campaign to help people quit the habit while on the other, the European Parliament has just been accused of giving in to the tobacco industry with regard to a proposed new legislation to control cigarette marketing.

Furthermore, there is continuing pressure from certain members of the union in whose countries tobacco is grown (principally Italy, Greece, Bulgaria and Poland) to allow producer subsidies for farmers under the Common Agricultural Policy.

Despite differing opinions across the union, the public health position does at least appear to be clear. Some 700,000 people across Europe die each year from smoking related causes and the annual cost of healthcare from smoking caused illness is over £20 billion. The EU’s current  specific anti-smoking campaign, with its strap line ‘Ex-smokers are unstoppable’, begins from a  recognition that smoking is the largest cause of preventable death and has a particular focus on the 28 million smokers in the 25-34 year olds age bracket.

While this programme continues to run, the European Parliament has also been looking in detail at proposals for new legislations that have been developed with the aim of discouraging young people from taking up the habit. The Parliament was considering a draft directive on tobacco which, in its final form, will become a law in 2014 and over the next two years, will be adopted by all 28 member states of the Union.

The European Commission proposals to the Parliament were comprised of possibly the world's most stringent anti-tobacco laws. Suggestions included having pictorial health warnings take up 75  percent of the surface area of packets, for example. Research has suggested this highly graphic approach may be  especially powerful in deterring young people from taking up  smoking.

It also recommended that e-cigarettes should be available only on medicinal grounds, rather than being sold directly to users. E-cigarette sales have grown rapidly following the ban on smoking in public places and there  is a concern that they may be a route into smoking itself for younger people.

However, Parliament appears to prefer the alternative option whereby health warnings should take up 65% of surface area and they have rejected the proposals regarding e- cigarettes. This could present problems, particularly in the UK whereby there is already an agreement that e-cigarettes should be available only as medical devices after 2016.

Parliament did partially approve recommendations regarding flavouring of cigarettes but delayed adoption for another eight years. The proposals also mean that marketing language such as "light", "mild" and "low tar", can no longer be used in describing cigarettes. Packs of 10 cigarettes, which are seen as being particularly attractive younger smokers because they are less expensive, will  be removed from the market. Most (18) EU states already have 20 or 19 as the minimum pack size. Cigarette packaging styled like lipstick or perfume containers will be banned but ‘slim’ cigarettes – also targeted at younger women – will not.

Parliament’s response was seen in some quarters as being a serious watering down of the original proposals and as a victory for the tobacco industry and their lobbyists. The contrast between the high profile and costly ‘quit smoking; campaign’ and the Parliament’s position was highlighted.

Finally the issue of subsidies for tobacco growers has also come under negotiation to define the overall pattern of agricultural subsidies from the EU into the future. Pressure from Italy and other countries to support tobacco farmers has been resisted earlier in the year but with the negotiation process in its final stages, there has been a final attempt to re-open the debate. 

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