MEPs must base EU tobacco products directive vote on 'unambiguous scientific evidence'

There should be no compromise on health and that is why there should be only one way forward for the tobacco products directive, argues CPME's Birgit Beger.

By Birgit Beger

07 Oct 2013

We all know that politics often involves complex decisions, in which several sides present valid arguments that must be weighed against each other carefully in order to find a sound compromise.

For the negotiations towards a new tobacco products directive, however, I see a remarkable departure from the usual pattern. Here, policymakers find themselves in the privileged position of having scientific evidence to base their position on.

Unlike many dossiers, there is no scope for uncertainty as to which course of action to take. When it comes to tobacco control laws, medical evidence, public opinion and international conventions, such as the WHO framework convention on tobacco control, all point towards the need for and the legitimacy of policy decisions which provide the best possible protection of health.

In particular with the focus on the protection of children and young people, there is no scope to compromise on health.

In the European parliament, many MEPs have recognised the opportunity to make meaningful progress towards rolling back tobacco-related harm and creating a framework for the union to become a role model for action.

I therefore find it deeply disappointing that other MEPs have made the choice to weaken the proposals made, to favour the commercial interests of the tobacco industry over the protection of citizens' health.

Tomorrow will finally see the European parliament's plenary vote on the proposal for a new tobacco products directive, marking an important milestone in the negotiations towards the union's new framework on tobacco control.

I would like to highlight three points which, from the European doctors' point of view, can unequivocally make significant steps towards protecting the health of children and young people better.

First, it is necessary to follow the evidence on policies as to packaging and labelling of tobacco products. Here is it proven that the bigger the relative size of health warnings in comparison to packet surface (and consequently the smaller the size of the packet surface which can be used for marketing purposes), the greater the deterrent effect towards young would-be smokers.

From the policy options on the table, the provisions foreseeing a 75 per cent surface coverage for combined health warnings is therefore to be supported.

When viewing the tobacco products market, it also becomes clear that two other strategies which are used to target children and young people necessitate urgent action: products which contain flavourings and other additives and the so-called 'slim' cigarettes.

Both of these categories are unashamedly marketed to address young would-be smokers. For both, there is a strong emphasis on attracting girls and young women (this being a consumer group for which the tobacco industry by its own admission sees lucrative profit potential).

And both product categories employ means which aim to draw attention away from the dangerous properties of tobacco and smoking, by facilitating the palatability of products and highlighting characteristics which range from implying a lesser degree of harm to actively associating aspirational lifestyle features with their consumption.

"An outright ban of these products can be the only responsible reaction"

It is impossible to condone these practices, which are intentionally misleading. An outright ban of these products can be the only responsible reaction.

I still believe that there is a genuine chance for this legislation to fulfil its potential and create a framework in which the protection of health takes precedence over industry's agenda.

I therefore appeal to all those who have the opportunity to shape the new tobacco products directive: do not compromise on health.