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Science

EU Commission 'won't tolerate' watered down warnings on tobacco packaging

With MEPs voting on proposed EU tobacco law on Tuesday, plans for graphic images of smoking-related disease, covering 75 percent of packaging, may yet be diluted - to the point of near death.

The graphic health warnings on cigarette packets in countries like Australia are designed to shock. Tar-filled lungs, diseased eyes and mouths, premature babies hooked up to drips - it's enough to put you off smoking for life.

And that's the point.

The health warnings are designed to discourage the use of tobacco, particularly among younger people taking up the habit. And in Australia the campaign appears to have had an impact, with the number of smokers falling to an all-time low of 15 percent.

The review of the European Union's tobacco legislation, the Tobacco Products Directive (TPD), is Europe's first step towards mandatory graphic health warnings. If adopted, the legislation would mandate that 75 percent of packaging space be allocated to graphic - rather than just written - health warnings.

Proposed health warnings for tobacco products in Australia in 2011. (Photo: EPA/DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND AGEING AUSTRALIA AND NEW ZEALAND)

Australia is known for its shocking and effective warning campaigns

But following a campaign on the part of tobacco lobbyists in Brussels, the bill drafted by the European Commission appears to be under threat. Many MEPs may now be ready to support a reduced percentage of packaging surfaces for health warnings.

"The commission's proposal will be completely watered down," says Ingeborg Gräßle, a German MEP who has been an enthusiastic supporter of the bill. "We may even have a roll-back on [the legislation] we have now."

That's a reference to the mosaic of different European laws favored by the tobacco industry.

The fate of the bill will be decided in a plenary sitting of parliament in Strasbourg on Tuesday, after which the legislation will be vetted by the European Council - the powerful body representing the EU's member states.

The European Public Health Alliance, representing public health organizations and professionals, has called on MEPs to support the legislation, arguing that "all scientific data" show that the measures would be effective.

But the EU's consultative body of employers and employees has attacked the TPD.

The European Economic and Social Committee says the 75 percent requirement is not based on scientific evidence and that it may ultimately lead to an increase in tobacco smuggling.

A kiosk worker (below) looks at cigarette packets which are kept covered up by law in central Sydney on August 15, 2012. (Photo: GREG WOOD/AFP/GettyImages)

Smoking causes about 700,000 deaths a year in Europe - the EU hopes to learn from other countries

Both of these claims have been front and centre of the tobacco industry's large campaign against the TPD, and are both rejected outright by experts in the field.

Line in the sand

The European Commission is now warning the European parliament that a dramatic reduction in the size of health warnings would not be tolerated.

Frederic Vincent, the spokesman for the Commission's Directorate General for Health and Consumers, says that anything below 65 percent would be unacceptable.

"Going below a certain threshold, let's say two-thirds, would not be something we would support," Mr Vincent told DW. "There are some member states, such as Belgium […], which already have 65 percent of the package dedicated to health warnings. So, indeed, going beneath that could be a wrong message to send to member states."

However, on the issue of "slim" and so-called "flavored" cigarettes, such as menthol, the commission is confident its proposed ban will be supported by both the parliament and European Council.

"When this issue was discussed with member states a few months back […] it looked like it was an issue on which the member states could agree," Vincent says.

Irish courage

Yet Ireland, which along with Finland is seen as Europe's strongest supporter of tobacco controls, has real concerns that the TPD will emerge from parliament on Tuesday substantially weakened.

A Brazilian cigarette pack depicts the photograph of a pregnant smoker with the caption 'The Ministry of Health warns: smoking during pregnancy is detrimental to child's health' as in the background a woman lights a cigarette (Photo: EVARISTO SA/AFP/Getty Images)

Brazil - and Canada - have used graphic images on tobacco packets for years

To counter this, Ireland's Ministry of Health released a statement on Friday reminding MEPs that the draft legislation has the strong support of many European governments.

The statement, signed by 16 European health ministers, also urges legislators not to lose sight of the fact that smoking causes an estimated 700,000 deaths a year in Europe.

But Ingeborg Gräßle remains pessimistic.

Rather than the EU achieving a successful directive on tobacco packaging, Gräßle says it is tobacco that "has a 100 percent success here."

"We will continue to have slim cigarettes, e-cigarettes available everywhere," she says, "even more tobacco freedom than before."

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