EU anti-smoking effort: Are bigger labels enough?


Will larger health warning labels on cigarette packets prevent the young from smoking? European legislators certainly hope so.

Images of decayed teeth, missing toes and lung cancer have, for some time, been used to try and discourage smokers from lighting up the next cigarette – without much in the way of results. Labels informing users of the potential health hazards have hardly been more successful. With the high-level threshold people have these days, getting used to horrifying images doesn’t take long. In addition, for all the pictures, many cigarette packets still boast an appealing design, even if a third of it is covered.

To make images unavoidable, the European Parliament in October agreed on enlarging the size of warning labels. Originally, MEPs suggested the labels cover 75% of packaging. The proposal that was eventually approved says that health warnings should cover 65 % of both the front and the back and appear on all sides of the unit packet and any outside packaging. (Currently, 30% of the front and 40% of the back should be covered.)

On the new packaging, brand names would be moved to the bottom of the packet. Manufacturers cannot suggest (on the packaging) that their products are less harmful or, in any way, healthy. Resemblance with cosmetics or food should be banned as well. This latter is emphasized as several makers have included vitamins and flavorings – such as fruits, spices, herbs, alcohol, candy, menthol and vanilla – that has helped develop addiction in those who are not genuine fans of the taste of nicotine. Stimulants like taurine and caffeine are also to be prohibited. Sugar, though, remains legal. If approved by the European Commission and its Council, countries will have 18 months to make the legislation effective.

Whether it will be effective in health terms is not certain. Smoking makes kids feel more mature and in control, plus it’s cool, so why give it up? If restrictions on selling points and hiked prices have not worked, why should labeling? National tobacco shops still serve under-18s indirectly who ask older customers to buy them cigarettes. Increased prices have not curbed use substantially either. Rather, they have given rise to sales of rolling tobacco.

And for those who smoke half-used cigarettes, price rises are not a factor anyway. Children younger than 14 years old, or those who cannot afford to buy cigarettes at all, often collect what others have thrown away. “In the staff lounge, we fill jars with water and place the butts in them, otherwise kids collect and smoke them,” said Ágnes Nagy, a gym teacher at Tüskevár, an elementary and high school for children with special needs. In Nagy’s experience, it is impossible to stop kids smoking, especially those with lax parental control. They will find a way – and the tobacco – to smoke outside school.

Attempts to make smoking less appealing have delivered partial success. The current EU directive came into effect 12 years ago yet smoking is still the leading preventable cause of death with 700,000 casualties per year. Statistics show a 12% drop between 2002 and 2012, to 28% from 40%, but this comparison is made between the EU-15 and EU-27, where significant differences can be observed in smoking habits.

“Though smoking is decreasing among adults, in many countries the number of young smokers is rising at alarming levels”, said Linda McAvan, a British MEP, citing data of the World Health Organization show.

There are, however, some promising trends. In Canada, warning images were introduced in 2011. Since then, half of young smokers have decided to quit. 

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