New EU rules on tobacco products are set to be proposed tomorrow (19 December), much earlier than expected. But they will not contain a requirement for plain packaging on cigarette packs or a ban on displaying cigarettes in stores, as called for by health campaigners and feared by tobacco companies.
A revision of the 2000 tobacco products directive was due this year, but this was put into doubt by the resignation of former health commissioner John Dalli in October. There was concern that the abrupt change of leadership would delay the revision for several years.
According to a leaked draft of the proposal, it will not contain a requirement for cigarette packs to contain only pictorial health warnings and no company branding, as has recently been adopted in Australia. Tobacco companies had complained this would infringe on their intellectual property rights and would increase illicit trade in counterfeit cigarettes. But individual member states would be free to pass such a law if they wished.
The proposal will, however, require pictorial health warnings that cover 75% of cigarette packs, according to the draft. Current rules only require a text warning.
The draft does not contain a requirement for cigarette packs to be kept out of public view, as has recently been adopted in some member states including the UK. But it does ban "slim" cigarettes and packets containing fewer than 20 cigarettes.
The draft does not change the existing maximum limits on the amount of tar and nicotine in cigarettes, but it does ban flavourings used to change the taste of tobacco. This however would not include sugar, which some growers use to make their tobacco taste like that grown in areas with better growing conditions.
The draft does not end the EU ban on smokeless tobacco snus, the change being asked for by the Swedish tobacco company at the heart of the allegations against Dalli. Sweden negotiated an exemption from the snus ban when it joined the EU, and it is the only member state in which it is legal.
Centre-right Austrian MEP Richard Seeber said he welcomes the fact that the proposal will be put out earlier than expected. “It's a very important signal for the credibility of the EU, that this incident didn't delay the process,” he said.
Seeber welcomed the fact that the draft does not contain a plain packaging requirement, saying it would have been inappropriate to propose such a change while there is still a World Trade Organisation case pending against Australia based on intellectual property suppression.
However European Confederation of Tobacco Retaillers called the draft a "severe and restrictive text".
"For our own survival, we will not hesitate to demonstrate in Brussels to express the reasons of our discomfort," said the group's chairman Giovanni Risso.