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EU’s attempt to reduce youth smoking meets scepticism

By Amel Semmache and So Jeong Lim.

 

The European Commission recently proposed to prohibit strong tobacco flavours and increase health warnings on cigarette packages with the aim to reduce youth smoking in the EU. Yet, the proposed measures fail to satisfy many activists, industrials and politicians.

According to recent figures from the European Commission, 70% of European smokers started to smoke before the age of 18. The current EU tobacco regulation showing flaws in preventing young people from starting to smoke, the European Commission decided to introduce new measures targeting the youngest EU citizens.

Included in this proposal is a ban on strong tobacco flavourings such as menthol. A requirement of 75% of cigarette packaging surface dedicated to health warnings – including shocking pictures and quit-smoking help line – would also be mandatory; measures that until now were regulated by member states.

Still, the proposal received mixed reactions from stakeholders who find it either too restrictive or not progressive enough.

Industries make tobacco taste like candy

Since the last Tobacco Products Directive was implemented in 2001, the tobacco products landscape has changed radically. E-cigarettes, slims and countless numbers of new flavours and package designs have flooded the tobacco market.

Studies conducted for the Commission’s proposal show that tobacco additives such as menthol are involved in tobacco addiction and certain tobacco flavours appear to mainly target the younger consumers.

“We think that the use of ingredients and in particular strong flavourings is without any doubt a kind of hook from the industry to attract young people,” said Frédéric Vincent, spokesperson of the Commissioner for Health and Consumer Policy, Tonio Borg, in charge of this proposal.

“We have seen new types of cigarettes for young people that really taste like candy,” stated Niels Them Kjær, Coordinator for Tobacco Prevention at the Danish Cancer Society. “If we don’t make limits on which kind of additive you can put on tobacco, you will probably have an increase of young smokers.”

An expert and young people express their views on the proposed measures

 

The proposal fails to persuade industries

As the proposal is now being debated in the European Parliament and Council of Ministers, doubts on the proposal’s effectiveness has risen quickly. Industrials and some politicians think that the proposal fails to address the problem of youth smoking.

According to Thierry Lebeaux, Head of EU Affairs at Japan Tobacco International – tobacco products manufacturer that owns brands such as Camel and Winston – the measures proposed by the Commission are not pertinent.

He thinks that minors are not encouraged to smoke because of the package or flavour of tobacco. For him, “they may start to smoke because their environment [relatives or friends] smoke and they are given their first cigarette. The first cigarette is not chosen, it is the one which is available to them. The problem is not the choice of products but the availability of products.”

 

If the proposal is accepted, packages would all look similar to this one in 2015
If the proposal is accepted, packages would all look similar to this one in 2015

 

A timid proposal

In contrast, many were expecting more progressive moves from the Commission and believe that the proposal could go further ahead as Australia and Canada did.

François-Xavier Vauchelle, assistant to Françoise Grossetête, MEP from the European People’s Party (Christian Democrats) believes that more can be done in Europe to inform young people about the damage of tobacco. “The European Union can incite, can help member states to do more on this issue,” he said. “The European Commission has the possibility to finance and to organise campaigns on tobacco”.

Moreover, researchers in Spain found that the proposed warning images would not be effective enough among the youngest. Their study focused on the emotional impact of tobacco warning images on different age groups.

“Younger participants evaluated tobacco warning images as less triggering than older participants,” reported Miguel A. Muños, Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of the Balearic Islands (Spain).

“The current tobacco warning images may be less effective to provoke reluctance on smoking in the adolescent population. In this sense, the use of images more arousing for adolescent population should be considered.”

A middle of the road approach

Facing polarised reactions, the European Commission believes that the proposal is balanced.

“We were expecting to have a strong debate on tobacco,” stated Frédéric Vincent. “The simple fact that you have some people criticising – the industries, some member states – and on the other hand some very strong NGOs saying it’s not enough, for us it shows that we have chosen the right approach – a middle of the road approach.”

Watch Health and Consumer Policy Commissioner Tonio Borg explaining the main goals of the proposed Tobacco Products Directive.

Reports on the ongoing debates in the European Parliament and Council of Ministers should be published soon. If the new Directive is adopted in time, it is expected to be implemented at the earliest in 2015.