The European Union has formally agreed legislation concerning the size and nature of health warnings on cigarette packaging.

The fifteen member states must now introduce laws forcing tobacco companies to cover at least 30% of cigarette packs (currently only 4%) with admonitory advice. Warnings must also become more explicit, such as ‘Smokers die younger’.

The legislation also takes the unprecedented step of barring the use of terms such as ‘light’, ‘low tar’ and ‘mild’, since they are deemed misleading. Products such as Camel Lights and Marlboro Lights – the fastest growing section of the EU’s tobacco market, representing 30% of sales – will have to be rebranded.

The law, details of which were agreed yesterday by a joint committee of the European Parliament and the council of member governments, has been passed remarkably quickly – only 15 months after the first draft was submitted. It is expected to be rubber-stamped by the EU’s legislature in coming weeks. Member states will then have until the end of September 2002 to pass matching legislation.

Every tobacco company trading in the EU – including those headquartered elsewhere – will have to comply with the legislation within Europe. It will also apply to EU-based companies when trading outside the region.

Initial reaction from tobacco companies did not seem overly hostile. “We think that much of the content is effective and sensible regulation,” said Philip Morris, the only big US cigarette producer operating in the EU. “I would be disappointed if this directive became the subject of legal action.”

The EU will certainly be keen to avoid a legal dispute. Last year a move by the European Commission to ban tobacco advertising was blocked by the European Court on the grounds that health, a national concern, was not within the remit of the supranational body [WAMN: 05-Oct-01]. Officials have side-stepped this argument for the new legislation by claiming that its principle aim is to help trade within the EU – something that definitely is in its jurisdiction.

News source: Wall Street Journal