Healthcare NGOs gathered in the European Parliament to listen to Health Commissioner Tonio Borg discuss the controversial Tobacco Directive after he had attended the European Council’s Competitiveness meeting.
Borg said the Council gathering had discussed the issue, arguing that the controversial Tobacco Directive’s implementation could cost jobs and others saying that improvement in health would more than compensate. “This is a health issue. Of course it has economic effects, but it is a health issue,” said Borg.
“This is a balanced directive. Balanced but ambitious,” Borg said.
He explained that the Commission, and many others’ position was straightforward, “We all shared the conviction, that as responsible legislators we must stop our children smoking. We all know the results of smoking, cancer, heart disease and premature death.”
He said that a city the size of Frankfurt was lost every year due to smoking and noted, “If tobacco had been introduced today it would be prohibited.”
Explaining the directive he said, “Tobacco products should look and taste like tobacco products – and not be masked by designs or disguised by flavours. This is why the Commission proposal focuses on two key aspects: first, packaging and labeling; and second, flavours.”
He said that it will be possible to use additives but not “a characterising flavour.” He said that some were arguing that flavours such as menthol should be permitted but Borg felt otherwise, pointing out that research showed that people smoking mint flavoured cigarette actually inhaled more smoke.
Countering the argument that the directive would cost jobs, he said, “It will have economic consequences, but also economic advantages because those who stop smoking will spend their money elsewhere in the economy.” He repeated that health was his main concern, adding that this would have benefits through lower health care costs, and healthier, more productive workforces.
He stressed the timeliness of the proposal, “This directive is also needed because of new developments in the markets, with products that look like perfume and smokeless products, as if harm is limited to the smoke and not the nicotine.”
“The aim is reducing the number of smokers,” he said.
Speaking on the new packages, the Maltese Commissioner explained, “We want to see clear information about the nature of the problem. Some have said pictures are too disturbing, but the purpose is to shock, not to show something pleasant, to make smoking as unattractive as possible.”
However, he said it would be up to the EU Member States to bring in ‘plain packaging.’ He explained that only a few nations had introduced such packaging, notably Australia, but he said that recent court victories for the Canberra government could make it easier for European nations to follow the antipodean lead.
With the Swedish Snus, a tea bag like chewing tobacco, he said that Sweden was given an exception during membership negotiations on the strict condition that they would not market in any other EU nation and that changing this “would require a treaty change,” the Brussels way of saying ‘never.’
Borg urged that “negotiations must come to swift conclusions during current parliament.”
Cristian Busoi MEP (ALDE, RO) explained that smoking was behind the biggest killers in Europe and said it was “more disturbing” because almost 61,000 people die each year from second hand smoking “like Europe losing a small town every year.”
He said the tobacco directive was one of the most sensitive and important debates facing parliament this year. Aloz Peterle MEP (EPP, SLO) said that he didn’t smoke, but used smoke “to calm bees” while beekeeping. He said he had attended too many funerals of cancer victims and he said, “we know the consequence of smoking.” He said action was needed and he was concerned by the number of young girls who were beginning to smoke. “Prevention is not only possible, it is a must,” he declared.
Florence Berteletti-Kemp from the Smoke Free Partnership said their mission was the implementing of the World Health Organisation (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which has been ratified by the EU and all member states.
Berteletti-Kemp said there were masy challenges for the directive, adding that smoking cost the EU €25 billion in health costs and €7 billion in productivity losses.
“I could have chosen to talk about the lobbying of the tobacco industry,” she said, adding, “in 2010 the six leading tobacco companies made $35 billion in profit. This is equal to Coca-Cola, McDonalds and Microsoft combined.”
Illustrating the size of the Tobacco lobby, she continued, “There are at least 97 full time lobbyists in Brussels with €5.3 million budget. I believe these figures are only the tip of the iceberg”
She said that they supported the Directive and cautioned that, “We must prevent young people taking up the habit. This year 80 million will begin to smoke.”
“Smoking is the biggest avoidable health threat in the EU. We know that it is children - not adults - who start smoking. If we can stop children and young people from starting before the age of 25 then we will have gone a long way to solving the problem - and that is why we need to take measures to stop companies marketing cigarettes at the young,” said Linda McAvan MEP (S&D, UK) and Rapporteur for the proposed Tobacco Products Directive.
She added that she supported the Commissioner and wanted to strengthen the directive, adding that she was shocked by some of the packaging that had been introduced recently.
She also noted, “We’ve seen that other countries have gone further than the EU, in fact some of those products are only on sale in the EU.”
“Why are we seeing more pink cigarettes on the market if it’s not about bringing young people into smoking?” She asked.