European lawmakers approved sweeping new regulations governing the multi-billion dollar tobacco market on Tuesday, including limits on electronic cigarettes, bigger warnings on cigarette packs and a ban on menthol and other flavorings in a bid to further curb smoking.
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 some of the most sensitive legislation.
The legislature still must reach a compromise with the 28 EU 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 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.
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 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.
The Parliament also voted to ban menthol — though not until 2022 — and some other flavorings. They rejected a ban on slim cigarettes.
EU officials pleaded passionately for tough anti-tobacco measures, arguing it's a crucial question of public health. They also want to stop youngsters from being swayed into smoking by new, fancy packaging, e-cigarettes, or cigarettes featuring flavors such as fruit aromas.
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.
Prime Minister Enda Kenny of Ireland on Monday wrote a fervent appeal to lawmakers, 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 per year.
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