Tobacco products directive: MEPs vote on right side despite 'long and bumpy road'

After three years in the making, endorsing the EU's tobacco products directive should be top of the council's 'to-do-list' argues Zoltán Massay-Kosubek.

By Zoltán Massay-Kosubek

28 Feb 2014

Today, the European parliament approved a better fit for purpose European regulation on tobacco. 

The new tobacco products directive (TPD), with larger pictorial and text health warnings and a ban on flavoured cigarettes, will upgrade the obsolete 13 year old EU tobacco legislation. 

While this renewed directive does not set global standards on public health protection when it comes to tackling the tobacco epidemic, it does allows member states to go further, if they wish to do so.

The measures adopted today by the parliament are supported by a solid body of evidence showing how these features encourage smokers to give up and discourages non-smokers from starting. 

Tobacco smoking is a public health monster that kills around 700,000 people every year in Europe – an enormous number of people comparable to the population of cities like Frankfurt or Seville. 

[pullquote]In order to protect the lives of thousands of European inhabitants, public health threats like tobacco and smoking related harm must become a priority in the agendas of our policymakers. This matter is arguably not always fully grasped in today's political decision-making[/pullquote].

This vote comes after a long and bumpy road plagued by obstacles and delays caused by vested economic interests, like the tobacco industry's intense lobbying to weaken and delay this directive. 

As a result, this TPD falls short of matching the higher standards of public health protection around tobacco that other countries have set - such as Australia. 

For example, the parliament reduced the size of warnings on the tobacco package from 75 per cent to 65 per cent and mandatory plain packaging did not even make it into the original European commission's proposal. 

Tobacco packaging is the last weapon in the hands of the tobacco industry to lure specific demographics - slim cigarettes target women and coloured packaging is appealing to children, both of whom are increasing users of tobacco, especially in central and Eastern Europe. This new TPD will make tobacco packages less attractive to these demographic groups. 

The TPD also produced a list of banned additives, placed a ban on flavoured cigarettes, and ensured the product safety and quality of nicotine containing products (NCPs) including electronic cigarettes. All measures that will help prevent thousands of deaths every year and will go a long way to reduce the harm to health directly caused by smoking. 

Most importantly, the reviewed TPD will allow EU member states to introduce more stringent measures to regulate tobacco products, such as mandatory standardised packaging. Ireland is already considering this approach which gives us hope that member states will have the political courage to go further and show the political leadership Europe desperately needs in the field of tobacco control. 

With close to 13 million people suffering from smoking-related diseases such as cancer, cardiovascular disease or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease in the EU, smoking has devastating effects on societies and healthcare systems. 
In monetary terms, the estimated annual cost of tobacco to the European economy is about 4.6 per cent of the EU's GDP.

The council now has to endorse the TPD for it to become binding European law. After three years in the making, the endorsement of this important piece of legislation should be topping the council's to-do-list.