EU tobacco vote aims to ban smaller pack sizes

The future of tobacco retailing in the UK was thrown into uncertainty this week after Euro MPs voted to tighten tobacco regulations aimed at putting young people off smoking.

However some measures do not go as far as originally planned, or as some had feared. MEPs rejected a European Commission proposal to treat electronic cigarettes as medicinal products – a move that some think would have restricted sales – but backed a ban on cigarette flavourings, with a five-year delay in the case of menthol. Slim cigarettes will not be banned.  The proposals on e-cigarettes could prove problematical for the UK government, which has already drawn up tough proposals of its own.

Also on the table are proposals to put health warnings on 65% of each cigarette pack, as opposed to the proposed 75% (the current requirement is for 30% minimum coverage on one side and 40% on the other).

The proposals may not necessarily come into force – EU ministers must now consider the plans, and many powerful voices within the European Parliament have already made clear that they think the proposals will lead to job losses and play into the hands of organised crime. There will also now be tortuous negotiations between the European Parliament and the EU member states to decide on the final laws.

Should the draft tobacco directive become law in 2014 (the earliest it could be fast-tracked), it would take two more years to become law in each of the 28 EU member states, including the UK.

There has been intense lobbying of MEPs by both the tobacco industry and health campaigners. On one hand the Commission says almost 700,000 Europeans die from smoking-related illnesses each year – equal to the population of Frankfurt or Palermo. The costs for healthcare in the EU are estimated to be at least 25.3bn euros (£20.6bn; $33.4bn) annually.

The Response from the tobacco industry was as expected.

“We are extremely concerned about the scale of ill-informed and excessive regulation set to be imposed on our industry,” said Imperial Tobacco in a statement. “Misguided proposals to ban menthol tobacco products threaten to further fuel illicit trade, undermining our significant work with OLAF and EU Member States to tackle the problem. 

“Proposals to ban sales of cigarettes in packs of less than 20 will have a detrimental effect on retailers’ incomes. These proposals will deliver a body blow to legitimate retailers and business throughout the supply chain.”

And Jorge da Motta, UK managing director, JTI said: While we support the European Commission’s objective of reducing youth smoking, the Proposal to revise the Tobacco Products Directive will not achieve this goal. It has not properly been thought through, lacks reliable evidence and is unlikely to have an impact on smoking rates. Many of the proposed measures, including the menthol ban, will make it easier and cheaper for criminals to produce and sell cigarettes that are not tested, not regulated and not taxed. The illicit trade in tobacco is already costing EU countries around EUR 12.5 billion1 a year.

“The EU is set to ban 43% of cigarette packs and 64% of RYO pouches sold in UK shops. It is astonishing that the European Parliament has decided to take forward a policy for tobacco products which will effectively force consumers of these products to ‘supersize’ their tobacco purchases.

“Increasing the lowest price of a legitimate packet of cigarettes and pack of rolling tobacco above the “illegal street price” also risks tempting many more smokers to buy from criminals who don’t care who their customers are or about the quality of the product that they sell.”

Ironically, Angela Harbutt of the pro-tobacco organisation Forest also criticised the proposed legislation, saying: “prohibition doesn’t work and products that are banned will almost certainly be available on the unregulated black market. Law-abiding consumers will be at a serious disadvantage and it won’t help children because criminal gangs don’t care who they sell to.”

A quick (and unscientific) phone survey of wholesalers views brought a mixed reaction. Some believed that the proposals would drive more business to the black market, but others thought that they would make little difference. Two issues emerged as concerns – the continued uncertainty over plain packaging, and the banning of smaller pack and pouch sizes.

We’ll be examining readers’ views in more depth in our November issue.

PROPOSALS AT A GLANCE

  • All cigarettes with additives or flavours (eg menthol, capsules) to be banned eventually;
  • All pack sizes smaller than 20 (eg 10s, 19s, 14s) to be banned;
  • RYO pouches smaller than 20g to be banned;
  • A complete ban on oral tobacco (eg Snus);
  • Health warnings to cover at least 65% of a packet;
  • No ban for slim cigarettes;
  • Descriptions like “light”, “mild” or “low tar” to be completely banned;
  • Any proposals would become law in the UK by 2016 at the very earliest.

*In 2009 #8208;10, sales of tobacco products generated nearly £9bn in taxes for the UK government, about 2% of all receipts from taxation, a government report said.

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