EU gives Marlboro Man marching orders

The EU last week said cigarette packs must display blunt warnings, perhaps color photos of illness.

From its headquarters in Brussels, the European Union is sending a message to the Marlboro Man: "This town ain't big enough for the both of us."

In its latest showdown with the tobacco industry, the 15-member union has drafted tough new rules that could put color photographs of diseased lungs and rotting teeth on cigarette packs sold in Europe.

The move comes amid alarming signs that more and more young people in Western Europe are taking up the habit.

"I believe that young people have the right to smoke, but the tobacco manufacturers spend huge sums of money trying to make their products appear glamorous, and this image needs to be countered," said Jules Maaten, the Dutch member of the European Parliament who sponsored the legislation.

"This directive represents a watershed in the fight against the scourge of tobacco," EU health commissioner David Byrne told reporters last week, after EU authorities agreed on the law. "My key priority is to ensure that young people do not start smoking."

The law, which takes effect next September, requires cigarettemakers to put blunt health warnings over 30 percent of the front of a pack and nearly half of the back. They will be able to choose from an approved list of warnings such as "Smoking kills" and "Smokers die younger." EU-member governments may also insist on color photographs illustrating the dangers of smoking. In Canada, such illustrations have been found to be 60 percent more effective than written cautions.

The law also lowers the amount of tar allowed in cigarettes, and for the first time limits the permissible quantities of nicotine and carbon monoxide.

At the same time, it bans the use of such terms as "mild," "light," or "low-tar" on tobacco packaging, on the grounds that they misleadingly suggest some cigarettes are safer than others. This ban threatens such brand names as Marlboro Lights and Camel Lights.

"We now have the means to take rigorous measures against the greatest threat to public health in Europe today," said Lars Engqvist, the Swedish health minister, in a statement. Sweden currently holds the rotating EU presidency.

Smoking is blamed for the deaths of 500,000 people a year in Western Europe, where about one-third of adults smoke. Mr. Byrne said his goal is to bring that number down to levels in the United States, where about 20 percent of people smoke.

The new directive won praise from antismoking activists. "It is a great success, and we are all very pleased," says Clive Bates, director of the London-based Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) lobbying group.

Tobacco companies are less enthusiastic. The directive "strikes a disproportionate balance between the health warning and the commercial information on a packet" of cigarettes, says David Davies, spokesman for Philip Morris, which makes Marlboro, among other brands.

European health officials are anxious to stem the spread of nicotine addiction among young people - especially among young women, who are taking up smoking in unprecedented numbers. Studies sponsored by the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) found that the proportion of 15-year-old Austrian girls who smoke at least once a week rose from 20 percent to 36 percent between 1990 and 1998, for example. Researchers found similar if less dramatic figures throughout Europe, for both boys and girls.

The reasons for this pattern are unclear, experts say, but may simply be fashion and the fact that European teenagers are consuming more of all sorts of drugs, including marijuana and alcohol.

Two countries are bucking the trend, however.

In Finland, aggressive government antismoking campaigns - funded by a 0.5 percent levy on tobacco sales - have cut teen smoking, and figures have been falling over the past five years in Britain, too.

Mr. Bates, the ASH director, attributes this to local fashion, stiff increases in cigarette prices, and a more intriguing lifestyle change.

Mobile phones, he suggests, "occupy much of the same psychological space in teenage lives" as cigarettes. Seventy percent of British teenagers ages 15 to 17 own a mobile phone, he points out, offering "adult initiation, a badge of identity, peer-group bonding, and something to do with your hands."

The new European legislation comes in the wake of a blow for the EU's battle against tobacco use.

Last October, citing a legal technicality, the European Court of Justice struck down a directive that would have banned all tobacco advertising by 2003.

Commissioner Byrne said last week he planned to introduce new proposals to curb advertising in May.

"It is not so much a question of the effectiveness" of an advertising ban, says Puska Pekka, a director of WHO. "It is more of a moral question. In a consumer society, how can you allow advertising of a product that kills 1 in 2 of its users?"

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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