Two major directives on tobacco have been adopted recently by the EU, one on ingredients and labelling, the other on advertising and sponsorship. The European Parliament made a number of changes to the labelling directive, particularly on the size and nature of health warnings on cigarette packets. By contrast, it strongly endorsed the draft directive on tobacco advertising. Fierce lobbying has taken place over both pieces of legislation and in the case of the advertising directive the battle is not yet over: the EU Court of Justice will have the final say.
With an estimated half million deaths a year caused by smoking in the European Community and with 80% of new smokers being under 18, the idea of EU legislation to combat tobacco consumption appeals to many people. However, the EU has limited powers to legislate on public health, which is mainly the preserve of the Member States. One way the EU can adopt anti-tobacco measures is through single market legislation, because EU laws designed to remove barriers to trade within the Community must also take account of health issues.
For example, as long as national rules on cigarette ingredients or tobacco advertising vary across the EU, one Member State can ban imports from another State of cigarettes or of a magazine carrying tobacco advertising. The ban, although legal, amounts to a barrier to trade. To enable these products to be sold freely across Europe, standard EU rules are needed. However, these rules must be formulated in a way that is also conducive to better public health.
The directive on ingredients and labelling
The European Commission put forward a draft directive in 1999 to harmonise the EU Member States' laws on the maximum tar, nicotine and carbon monoxide levels for cigarettes, the health warnings to appear on packets, the use of non-tobacco ingredients and the descriptions of tobacco products. The many discrepancies between national rules were felt to hamper the way the EU's internal market operates, so the main need was simply to establish common EU standards. However, since the new legislation must also seek to protect public health, the EU-wide limits proposed for harmful ingredients were strict. Standard warning labels and product information were also proposed, so that consumers are adequately informed of the risks of tobacco products.
Maximum tar and nicotine levels
Under this directive, ceilings for tar (10mg), nicotine (1mg) and carbon monoxide (10mg) were to be introduced by 1 January 2004 for cigarettes manufactured and sold within the EU, although Greece has been given until 1 January 2007 to comply with the tar levels. Cigarettes manufactured within the EU for export to non-EU countries will also be subject to the same ceilings after a transition period (until 1 January 2007) allowing time for EU manufacturers to change their product specifications.
Terms such as "low-tar", "light", "ultra-light" and "mild", as well as new brand names and designs suggesting that a particular tobacco product is less harmful than others, are banned as of 30 September 2003.
Health warnings - the bigger the better
Since 30 September 2003 cigarette packets must also carry large health warnings. Thanks to the persistence of MEPs, these warnings are much bigger and can be more hard-hitting than the Commission originally proposed.
Thirty per cent of the front of each packet sold in the EU is taken up by a compulsory general warning, either "Smoking kills/Smoking can kill" or "Smoking seriously harms you and others around you". The latter was agreed at the insistence of the European Parliament, which wanted attention to be drawn to the dangers of passive smoking.
Forty per cent of the back of each packet must be covered by a compulsory additional warning, which Member States can select from the agreed list of 14 messages laid down in the directive. Examples are "Smoking when pregnant harms your baby", "Smoking is highly addictive. Don't start" and "Smoking can cause a slow and painful death".
For Member States with two or three official languages, the total surface area covered by both the general and additional warnings will be larger.
As a result of pressure from Parliament, Member States will also be allowed, from 1 October 2004, to introduce colour photographs or other illustrations depicting the health consequences of smoking to accompany the additional warnings on cigarette packets. The shock value of such pictures has proved highly effective in countries such as Canada and Brazil. These warnings can also include telephone numbers and e-mail or web addresses where smokers can get information on how to kick the habit. Although no Member State will be obliged to introduce picture warnings, it will not be allowed to block imports of cigarettes from EU Member States that do use them.
More product information for consumers
Hundreds of non-tobacco ingredients are added in the production process for many tobacco products, and may have an addictive effect. Starting from 31 December 2002, tobacco companies must submit to their governments each year a list of all ingredients in their products, together with the quantities and reasons for their use. MEPs insisted that the governments should make this information publicly available. The Commission must also draft no later than 31 December 2004 a standard list of ingredients authorised for tobacco products EU-wide.
The directive on advertising and sponsorship
Tobacco advertising on television is already banned under an EU law of 1991. A directive on tobacco advertising in other branches of the media as well as tobacco sponsorship was first adopted by the EU in 1998 but was challenged before the EU Court of Justice by the German Government, which argued that the EU had exceeded its powers. The Court upheld this appeal and struck down the directive, saying that some of the advertising bans envisaged - on posters, parasols, ash-trays and in cinemas - would have no effect on the single European market, their impact being purely local. However, the judges added that there was no reason why single market legislation as such should not be used to ban tobacco advertising.
The Commission therefore brought forward a new draft directive in 2001, carefully designed to avoid the problems encountered by the previous one, by targeting only advertising and sponsorship which have "cross-border effects".
The new directive bans tobacco advertising in the print media, on radio and on the internet, although exemptions are allowed for publications aimed at the tobacco trade. It also outlaws tobacco sponsorship of radio programmes and of events with a cross-border impact such as Formula One racing as well as the free distribution of tobacco products at such events. Indirect advertising, for example on clothing, is not prohibited by the directive. However, Member States are allowed to introduce even stricter anti-tobacco measures if they wish.
Parliament approved this directive by a large majority and it is due to be implemented by July 2005. However, the German Government announced in September 2003 that it is again appealing to the Court of Justice.
More anti-tobacco measures in the air
Various other measures are being considered by the European Commission. Subsidies for tobacco farmers, currently costing the EU budget around €1 billion, could now be cut and the funds switched to farm income support and regional aid. A ban on smoking in public places including bars is being mooted to protect employees from passive smoking and hence employers from litigation. Last but not least, staff at the Commission itself have been told they cannot smoke at the office as of May 2004.