Europe gets tough on smoking


In a move coherent with WHO’s push for stringent legislation of tobacco products, the European Parliament, in a 15 May vote, approved of a package of far-reaching anti-smoking laws. The new rules — which now have to be adopted by the individual European Union (EU) member states — will lower the maximum levels allowed for tar from 12 mg to 10 mg. Nicotine levels above 1 mg and carbon monoxide levels above 10 mg will be banned. The new rules will also require manufacturers to display giant health warnings on about a third of the surface of cigarette packets, up from less than 5% today.

Other measures of the EU directive, which will enter into force on 30 September 2002, include a ban on terms such as ‘low tar,’ ‘ultra light’ or ‘mild.’ Also, tobacco companies will have to compile a list of all ingredients in their products, together with their quantities and the reasons for their use. What’s more, from the end of next year, EU member states will have the option to call for dissuasive colour photographs or other illustrations to be displayed on cigarette packs. Graphic pictures depicting the effects of smoking on the heart and lungs, on male sexual potency, or other smoking-related diseases are already in use on cigarette packs in Canada since the beginning of the year.

Passed by a large majority, the legislation received praise from all sides. Mr David Byrne, European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection, welcomed the new directive, saying that people needed to be made aware of the dangers of smoking. ‘‘Smoking is not cool — smoking kills,’’ he said. In the EU alone, more than 500 000 deaths each year are due to tobacco consumption, according to WHO estimates. Worldwide, the annual toll is close to 4 million. Byrne’s goal, he said, was to see ‘‘a reduction in the number of people smoking from one third of the European population to less than one fifth’’.

Dr Douglas Bettcher of WHO’s Tobacco-Free Initiative called the new legislation ‘‘a very positive move. The EU is the first authority to ban such misleading descriptors as mild, low tar or light.’’ For Bettcher the mandatory submission of comprehensive lists covering all ingredients in tobacco products is long overdue. ‘‘Tobacco can contain up to 60 carcinogens and as many as 4000 ingredients. Which other product of that sort do you know, for which the content does not have to be disclosed? Tobacco was — and still is — a regulatory no man’s land. The EU legislation opens up a new pathway to reducing the harm caused by tobacco.’’

Some issues, such as the regulation of tobacco vending machines, fell by the wayside during ten weeks of a tedious ‘‘conciliation procedure’’ between Parliament, which called for stark health warnings on the machines, and the EU Council, which refused such measures. Member of Parliament Jules Maaten, who saw the directive through the legislative process, said in a press release: ‘‘Despite the terrible health consequences, I believe that people have the right to smoke, but the tobacco manufacturers spend huge sums of money trying to make their products appear glamorous, and this image needs to be countered.’’

More EU tobacco restrictions are on the way. On 30 May 2001 the Commission proposed rules on tobacco advertising and sponsorship which would harmonize existing regulations in the various member states. The rules would outlaw tobacco ads in print media, radio and on the Internet. (TV advertising of tobacco has been prohibited since 1989.) This is the EU’s second shot at trying to curb tobacco advertising; the first, dating from 1998, ended in defeat last October, when the European Court of Justice, following an appeal by tobacco companies and the German government, annulled the EU directive as there was no legal basis for prohibiting tobacco advertising which does not cross national frontiers.

The new anti-smoking laws could be linked to the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), which is currently being negotiated by WHO’s Member States. ‘‘We would hope that the FCTC is a road to tobacco control on a global level. The EU decision can provide some impetus for international action,’’ Bettcher said.

Michael Hagmann, Zurich, Switzerland

World Health Organization Genebra - Genebra - Switzerland