• By Tom Fairless

Brussels is set for a lull this week as the hub of European Union action shifts overseas. EU lawmakers are making the monthly commute to their other seat in Strasbourg, where they are due to vote on new tobacco legislation and discuss a response to alleged spying by the U.S. government. Meanwhile, several top EU officials have commitments overseas, from Rome to Washington D.C.

On Monday, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton will meet the prime ministers of Serbia and Kosovo in her latest effort to bring the two closer together, while European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso will host Iraq s deputy prime minister.

European Council president Herman Van Rompuy will travel to London on Tuesday to meet U.K. premier David Cameron fresh from last week’s Conservative Party conference, where he reiterated his pledge to take powers back from Europe. In Strasbourg, European lawmakers will vote on a law aimed at making tobacco less attractive to young people, for example by banning sweet or fruity flavors. Several lawmakers and national health ministers have complained about unusually aggressive lobbying, and there are fears that divisions within the Parliament could prevent a deal on the new legislation before European elections in May.

On Wednesday, Jos Manuel Barroso will visit the Italian island of Lampedusa to pay his respects to the victims of last week’s shipwreck disaster, and discuss possible European actions to address the plight of refugees. Mr. Van Rompuy will travel to Paris for a working lunch with French president Fran ois Hollande. And European lawmakers will discuss a response to the National Security Agency’s alleged tapping of the SWIFT company’s international bank transfer data. They will also vote on new rules on flight and rest times for pilots and cabin crew.

The EU s digital tsar, Neelie Kroes, will travel to Portugal and Spain mid week, meeting Portugal s vice prime minister on Wednesday and Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy on Thursday.

Also on Thursday, the EU’s top economic policymaker Olli Rehn will visit Washington for the annual meetings of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

And on Friday, Martin Schulz, president of the European Parliament, has an audience with Pope Francis in Rome.

E-cigarettes face classification as medicines

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The European Parliament’s environment and health committee voted today (10 July) to back the European Commission’s proposal for new tobacco restrictions, banning slim cigarettes and flavourings including menthol cigarettes and requiring graphic pictorial warnings covering 75% of cigarette packs.

Despite a demonstration in front of the Parliament today by advocates of smokless electronic cigarettes, the committee members voted to back to Commission’s proposal to classify these devices as medicinal products.

The Commission has proposed that e cigarettes containing 4 milligrammes or more of nicotine must be classed as medicinal products. Member states voted last month to make the rules on e cigarettes even tougher, lowering the threshold to 1mg. Despite a demonstration by e cigarette advocates outside the Parliament yesterday ahead of the vote, the committee voted to classify all e cigarettes as pharmaceuticals, regardless of the nicotine content.

The designation will not mean e cigarettes will need a prescription. But it will mean they have to go through a lengthy and costly approval process before marketing. It will result in many smaller and more innovative producers of e cigarettes going out of business, said Fraser Cropper, CEO of e cigarette company Totally Wicked. Medicines regulation creates a default prohibition and requirement for approval, leaving deadly tobacco cigarettes as the only easily marketed source of nicotine.

Policy toward the new technology widely varies across the EU. Some countries such as Denmark have banned them, while in others such as the UK they are freely available for sale with no restrictions.

Health campaigners cheered the committee vote outcome. But they expressed disappointment that an amendment to require plain packaging’ on cigarette packs banning the use of logos or trademarks was rejected. The Commission had been considering this but did not put it in its final proposal.