The European Parliament on Wednesday approved rules that will for the first time regulate Europe s fast growing market for electronic cigarettes.

Beginning in mid 2016, advertising for e cigarettes is to be banned in the 28 nations of the European Union, as it already is for ordinary tobacco products. E cigarettes will be required to carry health warnings, and must be childproof. The amount of nicotine will be limited to 20 milligrams per milliliter, similar to ordinary cigarettes.

The e cigarette regulation was part of an overhaul of European Union tobacco law that Parliament, meeting in Strasbourg, France, voted overwhelmingly to adopt, by a margin of 500 63, with 60 abstentions.

The vote ratified an agreement reached in December between Parliament and member states to update tobacco rules that have been in place since 2001.

To become law, the tobacco legislation now awaits only the final imprimatur of member states, something that appears to be all but certain.

The rules adopted on Wednesday go further than United States laws, by requiring that the top 65 percent of all cigarette packs be covered with health warnings and warning pictures of things like diseased lungs.

They ban all cigarette themed products that are specifically aimed at children, like chocolate cigarettes, and cigarettes that come in packages designed to look like lipstick or perfume containers. Menthol cigarettes are also to be prohibited, after a four year delay. But the new rules stop short of an earlier proposal to regulate e cigarettes as medical devices.

This is a victory, said Linda McAvan, the British Labour party member who guided the legislation through the Parliament. The original proposal was stricter, and I would have voted for that, but the new law is anyway a huge step forward in tobacco control.

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Eu votes through draconian new anti-smoking rules

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The main points of the TPD are

  • Banning the sale of packs of ten cigarettes and small pouches of tobacco
  • Health warnings to cover 65 percent of the front and back of all packaging
  • Banning of flavours like menthol
  • Minimum sized packets
  • Allows member states to ban internet sales, specifically aimed at electronic cigarettes
  • Regulation of electronic cigarettes
  • Continuing ban on Swedish snus, a tobacco based alternative to smoking

Controversially, the speaker of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, banned MEPs from voting on the individual aspects of the legislation. They had to vote for it all or none. This had important wider implications on the harm reduction clauses.

Whether this will lead to a reduction in smoking, and especially in youth smoking, will take a decade to quantify. Europeans remain addicted to the weed smoking rates have remained static and some countries, like Greece, have actually seen a rise in smoking.

Ireland banned packs of ten cigarettes in July 2009 and still has very high levels of youth smoking. Overall smoking rates have gone up too from 29 percent to 33 percent of the adult population in 2013.

However, the people most exasperated are the ‘vapers’, those who smoke electronic cigarettes (e cigs). The British MEPs of all parties were most keen to stymie the clauses on e cigs, as there is increasing evidence that many long term and heavy smokers have quit in greater numbers by using these than by going cold turkey or using nicotine replacement therapy.

Parliament has banned the concentrations of nicotine allowed in refills, where the need for the drug subsides. One ‘vaper’ suggested it will make e cigs like “sucking on a straw.”

Also, snus remains illegal outside Sweden. It looks like a very small tea bag, and is put on the upper lip and gum. It contains moist tobacco, allowing the nicotine to be absorbed.

For those who believe in reducing the harm of smoking tobacco, these regulations are very much an oxymoron. With snus, Sweden has the lowest rates of smoking, lung, lip, mouth and oesophageal cancer in Europe.

Along with the restriction of e cigs, those who believe in harm reduction think this is a very retrograde step and will keep people smoking tobacco.

Clive Bates, former head of Action on Smoking and Health, and now running his own e cig advocacy and consulting practice The Counterfactual, said to me today that “…e cigarettes have never killed anyone, the legislation was poorly designed, and a pointless restriction.”

Many will comment that this is a piece of legislation that will alienate further many EU citizens, and confirms the chasm between voters and Brussels.