EU lawmakers vote on controversial anti-smoking bill

STRASBOURG (AFP) - European lawmakers Tuesday vote on a long-fought and divisive anti-smoking bill that aims to ban "slims" and menthol cigarettes while tightening legislation on increasingly popular e-cigarettes.

If adopted as stands in an afternoon vote, the legislation before the European parliament will also force tobacco firms to print large health warnings covering 75 percent of packets.

The aim is to cut the number of smokers across the 500-million bloc "by two percent in the next five years," the EU's Health Commissioner Toni Borg said as he urged MEPs to be "daring" and support the plan.

But these first anti-smoking measures in more than a decade, which specifically aim to discourage young smokers, have unleashed a tough lobbying campaign from the tobacco industry that threatens the outcome of the vote.

MEPs say Philip Morris alone has invested 1.4 million euros to convince the parliament to scrap parts of the proposal and 176 amendments to the European Commission's proposal have been tabled to date.

Last Friday, health ministers from 16 of the 28 European Union states issued an appeal for a swift adoption of the law. It was supposed to go before parliament in September but was delayed on the request of the conservative, liberal and euro-sceptic groups.

Of key concern to some lobbyists is the fate of electronic cigarettes, which the Commission wants to label as a medicinal product meaning sales would be restricted to chemist outlets.

Once approved by the parliament, the anti-tobacco bill will still have to be greenlighted by the 28 EU nations, meaning the legislation cannot come into effect before 2017.

The proposed new rules on labelling, ingredients and smokeless products fell short of demands by some health campaigners for a total ban on company branding and logos on packets, along the lines of measures enforced in Australia.

Borg said on introducing the proposals that with 70 percent of smokers starting before the age of 18, the ambition was "to make tobacco products and smoking less attractive and thus discourage tobacco initiation among young people."

Almost 700,000 Europeans die from tobacco-related illnesses each year - equal to the population of a Frankfurt or Palermo - with associated health costs running at more than 25 billion euros.

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