The European Parliament voted last week to toughen regulations on the marketing and sale of tobacco that puts the continent ahead of the United States in discouraging smoking, particularly among children.
Tobacco companies lobbied European lawmakers heavily to dilute the new rules, and some changes made at the last minute weakened an earlier proposal. But the guidelines still represent a big improvement from current European rules. Lawmakers will now negotiate the changes with national governments and the European Commission before final rules are approved next year.
European lawmakers voted to increase the size of the warning labels on cigarette packs to 65 percent of the front and back of packs, up from 40 percent now. By contrast, warning labels in the United States are small text boxes that appear on the sides. A 2009 law instructed the Food and Drug Administration to require graphic warning labels that covered half of the front and back of cigarette packs, but after losing a court case on a set of labels, the FDA has not yet come up with replacements.
The European Parliament also voted to ban flavored cigarettes three years after the rules are finalized and menthol cigarettes after eight years. The 2009 U.S. law banned flavored cigarettes but left a decision on menthol to the FDA, which has not yet proposed any regulations. Studies have shown that flavored cigarettes make smoking more appealing to kids and young people and make it harder for addicted smokers to quit.
The most controversial part of the European rules concerned electronic cigarettes, the battery-powered devices that people use to inhale nicotine vapors. These devices are safer than conventional cigarettes because they do not contain carcinogens and other toxic substances from burning tobacco. But nicotine in any form is highly addictive and can be dangerous, especially to young people.
Under pressure from the makers of e-cigarettes, European lawmakers rejected a proposal to regulate those products as drug-delivery devices. But they did vote to confine their sale to adults and applied the same marketing and advertising rules to these products that apply to conventional cigarettes — a significant improvement.
Only 23 U.S. states have banned the sale of e-cigarettes to people younger than 18, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. The FDA has said it intends to regulate these devices as tobacco products, but after years of studying the issue, it has not done so.
More than 700,000 Europeans and more than 440,000 Americans die from smoking-related illnesses every year. And that’s not to mention the many who live, with difficulty, with debilitating respiratory ailments, like Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Dissease, that so often arise from smoking.
Lawmakers in Europe have taken some important steps; U.S. regulators should do the same.