Euro MPs have voted to tighten tobacco regulations aimed at putting young people off smoking, but some measures do not go as far as originally planned.
They rejected a European Commission proposal to treat electronic cigarettes as medicinal products – a move that would have restricted sales.
They backed a ban on cigarette flavourings – but with a five-year delay in the case of menthol.
Slim cigarettes will not be banned. EU ministers must now consider the plans.
Among other measures, MEPs voted on Tuesday to put health warnings on 65% of each cigarette pack, as opposed to the proposed 75%.
Linda McAvan, the Labour MEP steering the legislation, said 65% was still “a long way towards plain packaging”.
The current requirement for health warnings is for 30% minimum coverage on one side and 40% on the other.
MEPs spent hours debating these proposals. One said: “Smoking kills, it’s that simple”, arguing for the tougher regulations. But some questioned whether the proposals would significantly reduce smoking rates. Others were concerned about job losses.
In the end this was a mixed result for health campaigners. No ban on slim cigarettes, a delayed ban for menthol, health warnings to cover 65% of the packet – as opposed to the 75% proposed.
On e-cigarettes, proposals to regulate them as medicines EU-wide were rejected. That might pose complications for the UK Government; the regulator there has already backed the tougher regulations. Before the vote, EU officials had complained loudly about tobacco lobbyists trying to get MEPs to water down the plans and, from today’s evidence, it appears they were successful.
Still, this isn’t the end game for the legislation. There will now be negotiations between the European Parliament and the EU member states to decide on the final laws.
Packs of 10 cigarettes, considered popular among younger smokers, will also be banned.
Fourteen EU states already have 20 as the minimum, four stipulate a minimum of 19, and in the UK and Italy the minimum is 10.
Smaller than normal packs of roll-your-own tobacco will still be allowed under the new rules.
It was the European Parliament’s first reading of a draft tobacco directive which could become law in 2014. It would then take two more years to become law in each of the 28 EU member states.
There has been intense lobbying of MEPs by the tobacco industry and health campaigners.
Conservative and Liberal MEPs welcomed the amendments made to the original proposal from Labour’s Linda McAvan.
Speaking to the BBC, Ms McAvan said she was disappointed that slim cigarettes were not banned.
But cigarette packaging made to look like lipstick or perfume containers – attractive to girls – will disappear, she noted.
There will now be further negotiations with the Council – the grouping of relevant EU ministers. MEPs may manage to avoid a second vote and fast-track the legislation so that it is adopted before the May 2014 European elections.
The proposals also include a ban on words like “light”, “mild” and “low tar”, deemed to be misleading, and a ban on oral tobacco – called snus – although Sweden would retain its exemption.
EU Health Commissioner Tonio Borg called the vote “positive”. “I am confident that the revised Directive on Tobacco Products can still be adopted within the mandate of the current Parliament,” he said.
But Carl Schlyter MEP, health spokesman for the Greens, called it “a shameful day for the European Parliament, as a centre-right majority, led by the EPP group, has done the bidding of the tobacco industry and voted for weaker rules”.
The UK has already said e-cigarettes will be licensed as medicine from 2016.
Sales of the tobacco-free devices have boomed worldwide since bans on smoking in public places were introduced.
But campaigners say their growing popularity is dangerous.
They argue that e-cigarettes undermine years of anti-smoking efforts and could be especially damaging to children and non-smokers.
The devices are designed to replicate smoking behaviour without the use of tobacco. They turn nicotine and other chemicals into a vapour that is inhaled.
Manufacturers of e-cigarettes say the products have the potential to save millions of lives.
Anti-smoking campaigners say young people especially are being tricked into taking up smoking.
“Tobacco products should look and taste like tobacco products,” saidCommissioner Borg, presenting the proposals.
The legislation would allow member states the option of plain, non-branded packaging “in duly justified cases”.
The Commission says almost 700,000 Europeans die from smoking-related illnesses each year – equal to the population of Frankfurt or Palermo. The costs for healthcare in the EU are estimated to be at least 25.3bn euros (£20.6bn; $33.4bn) annually.
In 2009‐10, sales of tobacco products generated nearly £9bn ($14.6bn; 11bn euros) in taxes for the UK government, about 2% of all receipts from taxation, a government report said.