The UK government recently took a huge step forward for public health by committing to introduce standardised packaging for cigarettes. As we’re poised to become the first country in Europe to adopt standard packs, we’re pleased to publish a guest post by Linda McAvan, Member of the European Parliament (MEP).

Linda McAvan MEP

Linda McAvan MEP

Linda has helped to steer a key piece of tobacco control legislation –the Tobacco Products Directive – through the inner workings of the European Union’s policy machine. Here she gives her take on why the new law is important for people in the UK and across Europe.

The UK government’s commitment to standard packs goes hand in hand with a new European Union (EU) law that will protect people across Europe from the harm caused by tobacco.

The EU Tobacco Products Directive (TPD) aims to make cigarettes less attractive to the hundreds of children who start smoking in the UK every day – and will mean big changes to packaging and products over the next couple of years.

Following overwhelming support from the European parliament, EU countries now have two years to bring national law in line with the directive.

Here are the 10 most important changes to look out for:

  1. Larger graphic health warnings, covering two thirds of the front and back of packs: the bigger the warning, the more effective it is at deterring children and non-smokers. Warnings would have to go at the top of cigarette packs, with the branding squeezed into the remaining space at the bottom. The UK government has announced that it’s ready to go further by removing branding altogether.
  2. A ban on flavoured cigarettes and rolling tobacco. Gimmicky products like chocolate, vanilla, or “click” cigarettes with menthol capsules in the filter – all products that tempt young people – will come off the market.
  3. The slim lipstick style packs – so attractive to girls – will be banned, although slim cigarettes will continue to be allowed on the market, as there was, unfortunately, no majority to ban these.
  4. Cigarette packs will have to be a standard shape, and contain at least 20 cigarettes. So the “pocket money” packs of 10 cigarettes, as well as small packs of rolling tobacco, will disappear. Price is a big factor for young people, and getting rid of small packs is one way of raising the price barrier.
  5. Packs with novelty openings – like those that slide open – which are attractive to boys will be banned – packs will have to have a standard, flip top or side-hinge opening.
  6. The tar, nicotine and carbon monoxide labelling will come off packs. These gave smokers the false impression that a lower tar choice is somehow less harmful, whereas in reality, smokers simply compensate in the way they smoke.
  7. There’s a lot more we need to learn about what is actually in a cigarette, and what effect the 600 plus additives have on our health. The tobacco industry will be required to produce studies on additives, and pay for them to be independently peer-reviewed. This could ultimately lead to bans on substances which make smoking more addictive and damaging to health.
  8. New anti-illicit-trade measures: a hologram on cigarette packs to crack down on counterfeiting; and a track-and-trace scheme to reduce smuggling by allowing authorities to track the movement of cigarettes along the supply chain.
  9. E-cigarettes will be regulated for the first time. The law offers two routes to put e-cigarettes on the market: as a medicine or as a consumer product subject to safeguards. If companies choose to make a claim that their e-cigarette helps smokers quit, they will have to seek a medicines licence – and then the strength and advertising restrictions do not apply.
  10. But perhaps the biggest change of all is the Tobacco Products Directive itself – setting a benchmark across Europe for tobacco control. My hope is that countries across Europe, not just the UK, will strive to go beyond the law’s minimum requirements and do more to protect people, especially children, from the harm caused by tobacco.

Public pressure was key to getting this law agreed in time for the European elections – and many Cancer Research UK supporters played a crucial part by contacting MEPs ahead of the vote.

But the job is not done yet: we need to make sure the law is implemented fully, and before the May 2016 deadline.

Given the inevitable fight back from the tobacco industry, and their history of challenging these laws in court, the earlier we do this the better.

Linda McAvan MEP