Chinese Version
19 Jun 2013

Tobacco Creates New East-West Divide in Europe


New rules to be discussed by European Union ministers on Friday would ban menthol and slim cigarettes, a move designed to improve Europeans’ health but one that has divided it broadly along Cold War lines.

Led by Poland, which also happens to be one of Europe’s biggest tobacco producers, a bloc of former Communist countries is fighting a rear-guard action against the measures, hoping at least to save slim cigarettes that are popular with many, often female, smokers.

The concern of the rule drafters is that slim cigarettes add an allure that attracts young women to smoking and that menthol cigarettes make it easier for young people of both genders to start, and get hooked on, smoking.

But Poland, which is by far the biggest of the ex-Communist nations that have joined the European Union, stands to lose tobacco industry jobs from the proposed law. Some Polish politicians also worry about seeming highhanded to their sizable population of smokers, an estimated one-third of the population.

“It’s about freedom to a large extent,” said Roza Grafin von Thun und Hohenstein, a center-right Polish member of the European Parliament who is known as Roza Thun.

Ms. Thun said she supported the health impulses behind the draft legislation, but after listening to objections from voters at a meeting in Krakow she decided the rules should be relaxed. “People said, ‘When are you going to prohibit us from drinking wine or vodka, or stop us using white sugar? Maybe you will also tell us to go to bed early because going to bed late is also unhealthy.’ ”

The proposed rules would also require that pictures of smoking-related medical problems and written health warnings cover 75 percent of the front and the back of cigarette packets. This provision, though, might be scaled back after haggling among the European health ministers who will be debating the rules in Brussels.

Poland is hoping to garner support at Friday’s meeting from a group of countries including the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania, Hungary and Bulgaria.

Even their backing would probably not be enough to block the measures under the E.U.'s complex voting system. But talks among ministers could produce a compromise, perhaps phasing in the proposals. Any new regulations would require the approval of the European Parliament before becoming law.

Tobacco has been a fraught issue for the European Union’s executive arm, the European Commission, which has run public health campaigns to cut smoking but only recently removed direct agricultural subsidies for growing tobacco.

In December, the commission came up with the proposed tobacco rules. They are supported by Ireland, which currently holds the European Union’s rotating presidency and argues that the legislation would save lives and money.

“Approximately 700,000 Europeans die every single year of tobacco-related causes,” Ireland’s health minister, James Reilly, said in a speech earlier this year. “Smoking is the largest avoidable health risk in Europe, causing more problems than alcohol, drug abuse and obesity.”

The public health care cost attached to smoking in Europe is an estimated 25.3 billion euros, or $33.4 billion, each year, Mr. Reilly said. He cited recent studies showing that 70 percent of smokers in Europe began their habit before age 18.

A particular worry behind the proposal is that thinner or menthol-flavored cigarettes look and taste less harmful than others, giving people a misleading impression that they are safer.

In Poland, menthol cigarettes make up 18 percent of Poland’s cigarette consumption, with slim cigarettes adding an additional 14 percent, according to the Polish government.

Slim cigarettes are popular among young women who associated them “with elegant, slim, women,” Ms. Thun said.

“I think we should not be too dogmatic,” she said. “We are dealing with human beings, their addictions and their habit. We should help the younger generation not to smoke, but I think we won’t achieve anything with a hard line.”

One of the fears is that if menthol cigarettes or slims are banned, counterfeit versions will flood across Poland’s borders with Ukraine and Belarus, two countries outside the European Union, creating a huge new illegal market.

Premyslaw Noworyta, director of the association that represents Polish tobacco growers, said the industry supported 60,000 jobs, many in areas with little alternative employment. Only Italy grows more tobacco in Europe than Poland.

“For us tobacco growers, this is a catastrophe,” Mr. Noworyta said, adding that demand would simply switch to the black market.

A study by the firm Roland Berger, commissioned by the tobacco company Philip Morris International, predicted that if the legislation passed, the European Union would lose 70,000 to 175,000 jobs and that the black market would thrive.

The report also projected a drop in tax revenue in the European Union of 2.2 billion to 5 billion euros.

“Particularly strong effects will occur in countries with large tobacco sectors, such as Germany, France and Poland,” the report said. “Countries with high demand for slim or menthol cigarettes, such as Bulgaria or Poland, will experience disproportionate losses.”

Konrad Niklewicz, an analyst for the Civic Institute, a Polish research body linked to the Civic Platform political party, said the issue had touched a public nerve. “People tend to say, ‘Once again the eurocrats in Brussels have come up with another strange idea which is hitting our Polish tobacco industry.’ ”

But Mr. Niklewicz, who is also a former government spokesman, took pains to add that the legislation was unlikely to shake Poles’ underlying faith in the European Union.

“Historically, we are the biggest beneficiaries of E.U. funding,” he said, “so I can assure you that Poles will love the E.U. for many years to come.”