Years of careful preparation, months of intense lobbying and days of political drama are culminating in a crucial vote on tobacco products in the European Parliament in a couple of weeks.
Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) will vote on 8th October on a revised EU Tobacco Products Directive at a crunch point in the law-making process.
But will they support stronger measures to protect young people from the deadly effects of tobacco or succumb to unrelenting industry pressure?
We look at why this vote is so important to public health and why MEPs must not allow the tobacco industry to use its well-worn tactics to delay this life-saving legislation.
What is the EU Tobacco Products Directive?
It’s been over a decade since European politicians first got together to lay down a series of landmark EU-wide rules on the manufacture and sale of cigarettes and other tobacco products.
The result – the Tobacco Products Directive – was passed in 2001 to regulate the tobacco industry across Europe. Many of the regulations that seemed far-reaching at the turn of the century are today accepted as eminently sensible and essential public health measures. For example, it requires all cigarette packets to display health warnings and has banned the misleading terms “mild” and “light”.
In the past decade, tobacco companies have become adept at exploiting gaps and loopholes in the regulations. To enhance the appeal of their products and attract customers, they have used numerous marketing innovations, for example, flavoured ‘click’ cigarettes or claims of vitalising or organic properties.
That’s why the Directive is now being updated – to ensure a higher standard of health protection through stronger measures aimed at discouraging young people from starting to smoke and encouraging smokers to quit.
The EU Directive matters because it sets the legal framework for many tobacco control policies here in the UK.
What’s being proposed?
The proposals include:
- larger health warnings on the front and back of tobacco packaging;
- graphic (picture) warnings, as have already been introduced in the UK;
- information on how to stop smoking on all tobacco packs;
- standard shaped cigarette packs to stop innovative packs, for example, lipstick or perfume shaped packs – designed to make smoking look glamorous;
- a ban on flavoured cigarettes, which mask the taste of tobacco and particularly appeal to young people, as well as elegant-looking slim cigarettes;
- rules for herbal cigarettes and new nicotine-containing products such as electronic cigarettes.
These measures are part of a suite of tobacco control policies that need to be in place at local, national and international levels to combat the individual and global effects of lethal addiction. They complement our campaign for standardised packaging of tobacco, which has already been introduced in Australia and as announced to go ahead in Ireland and Scotland.
We continue to urge the UK government to act.
Meanwhile, the EU proposals have advanced far following several years of consultation, but to become law they have to be agreed by the national governments of the 28 member countries of the EU as well as the European Parliament. In June the Health Ministers of all the EU countries met to agree a preliminary position.
Now the ball is firmly in the court of the European Parliament to signal their position. But there are already signs that some MEPs are buckling under the pressure of tobacco industry lobbying.
In fact, MEPs were meant to vote earlier in September, but in a dramatic turn, political manoeuvring by MEPs who are sticking up for tobacco industry concerns forced the vote to be delayed to October.
The longer the delay, the less likely there is to be agreement before European elections next year. If MEPs dither now, they risk significant delay and more years for tobacco companies to promote their toxic products through innovative flavours and pack designs.
Tobacco industry tactics
We’re in familiar and frustrating territory – the well-established tactics of the tobacco industry are once again being deployed to delay and derail the proposals. An army of industry lobbyists and their front groups have descended on Brussels to spread myths and misinformation.
Once again, we hear diversionary and unfounded arguments that changes to pack shape and design will lead to increases in illicit trade and counterfeit cigarettes when in fact the Directive will strengthen measures against illicit trade and fakes.
Job losses in tobacco farming and production are also cited without any regard to the massive economic rewards that come from reducing levels of smoking, not to mention the huge human and economic costs of cancer and other debilitating diseases.
Public healthcare spending on treating smoking-related diseases is estimated to be over £21 billion per year across the EU, of which over £7 billion is related to cancers.
And every cigarette smokes costs the UK 6.5p when taking into account all economic and societal costs.
The fight for public health is on
Thankfully, many MEPs can see through these tactics and refuse to water down the Directive. The fight is on for public health. MEPs have a clear opportunity to pass measures to reduce the appeal of smoking to young people – those most likely to start the habit. Across Europe, around 70 per cent of the smokers start before the age of 18 and 94 per cent before the age of 25.
And you can help – we’re asking our supporters to join the fight and contact their MEPs.
In the meantime, we’re working with European tobacco control colleagues at the Smoke Free Partnership and European Public Health Alliance to seek support from MEPs for a strong Directive in the interests of health.
Come October 8th, we hope these efforts will be rewarded with a vote for common sense – to take forward this long-awaited and much-needed legislation. This vote will not be the end of the process, but it will mean the new law can be given a final stamp of approval before citizens across the EU elect their MEPs in May next year.
Andrew Hollingsworth, Public Affairs Manager
Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.