European lawmakers approved sweeping new regulations governing the multibillion-dollar tobacco market on Tuesday, including bigger warnings on cigarette packs and a ban on menthol and other flavorings in a bid to further curb smoking. They stopped short, however, of tough limits on electronic cigarettes.
The European Parliament vote in Strasbourg came after months of bitter debate and an unusually strong lobbying campaign by the tobacco industry, which decries the regulations as disproportionate and limiting consumer freedom. The Parliament dismissed many of the industry's arguments, but agreed on watered-down versions of sensitive legislation.
The legislature still must reach a compromise with the 28 European Union governments on certain points before the rules can enter into force. Diplomats say a deal could be struck by the end of the year.
The tobacco vote was viewed by the World Health Organization and EU health officials as an important milestone — but not the end of their quest to stop people from smoking and keep teens from ever picking up a cigarette.
Smoking bans in public, limits on tobacco firms' advertising, and other measures over the past decade have seen the number of smokers fall from an estimated 40 percent of the EU's 500 million citizens to 28 percent now. Still, treatment of smoke-related diseases costs about 25 billion euros ($34 billion) a year, and the bloc estimates there are around 700,000 smoking-related deaths per annum across the 28-nation bloc.
The lawmakers voted to impose warning labels — with the inclusion of gruesome pictorials, for example showing cancer-infested lungs — covering 65 percent of cigarette packs, rejecting a measure for blank packaging instead. Current warning labels cover 30-40 percent of packages.
Legislators also voted for new limits on advertising for electronic cigarettes, but rejected a measure that would have restricted them to medical use only. The battery-operated products, which are enjoying a boom in the United States and many European countries, turn nicotine into a vapor inhaled by the user and are often marketed as a less harmful alternative to tobacco. Many health experts say e-cigarettes are useful for people trying to quit or cut down on nicotine.
Armando Peruga, a tobacco control expert at WHO in Geneva, said regulating e-cigarettes wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing and that WHO is currently evaluating their safety and effectiveness. "We do think e-cigarettes could be useful, but we need more information. We have not yet ruled them out. We do think they could be helpful for some smokers."
Linda McAvan, a member of the European Parliament and Britain's opposition Labour Party, said she expects tougher rules on electronic cigarettes down the line, saying that most EU governments want them. "We want to make sure they aren't marketed as gateway products for young people."
The European Parliament also voted to ban menthol — though not until 2022 — and some other flavorings, favoring those who argued that fruity or other pleasant aromas entice novices to smoke. They rejected a ban on slim cigarettes, however.
Prime Minister Enda Kenny of Ireland wrote a fervent appeal to lawmakers on Monday, saying: "Every year, more Europeans die from smoking than from the combined total of car accidents, fires, heroin, cocaine, murder and suicide."
Lobbying against the measure was led by Philip Morris International Inc., which owns several brands such as Marlboro and called the new legislation "deeply flawed." The company maintains that, among other things, banning menthol, slim cigarettes or small packages would violate EU rules.
Philip Morris, with $8.5 billion of sales and 12,500 employees in Europe, also claimed the regulation could result in up to 175,000 job losses and lost tax revenues of 5 billion euros ($6.8 billion) per year. The company didn't immediately respond to a request for comment on Tuesday's vote.
Leftists broadly favored the new regulations, joined by many conservatives concerned about the costs to national health care systems of smoking-related treatment.