Delaying tactics by right-wingers during the plenary session in Strasbourg last week have jeopardised the European Parliament’s bid to make it harder for cigarette companies to recruit underage smokers.
A vote on the Tobacco Products Directive had originally been planned for the September session, but it was delayed for a month following representations from MEPs on the right – including Tory and UKIP politicians.
The Directive is a response to calls from the World Health Organisation. The proposed legislation asks for cigarette packs to be 75% covered by health warnings – a measure which has been proven to discourage child smokers. It also restricts access to ‘slim’ cigarettes and those with flavourings, and brings in security measures to prevent illicit tobacco sales.
The decision to postpone the vote is part of a sustained effort by the tobacco lobby and right-of-centre politicians to stall progress. With the EU Presidency passing to Greece, a notoriously lax country when it comes to tobacco, in June and elections taking place in spring next year, they hope to filibuster the directive out of existence.
A lot has been made of the pressure exerted by cigarette companies, and in particular by Philip Morris International. I am not adverse to companies making their case (up to a point), and neither am I deaf to the arguments against the Directive. Like many in the Labour Party I have spent most of my career trying to strike the best possible balance between regulation and free choice. I know it is never easy. The job losses it has been suggested the Tobacco Products Directive will bring are small – around 2% at most – but not completely insignificant.
But what I do object to are tactics which push back decision-making indefinitely, and an approach which doesn’t engage with the issue, but instead looks to avoid the democratic process through obstruction and delay.
My own position is clear. I believe the health benefits of this Directive outweigh the economic counter-arguments. 70% of young people begin smoking while they are underage, and child smoking is currently on the rise in many EU Countries; every day in the UK 570 people aged between 11 and 15 start. This is an area where Europe lags behind other parts of the world, and one where action is clearly required.
The proposals in the Directive steer clear of products like cigars, which have an adult market. The focus is not on grown-ups making informed choices, but on young people who are being deliberately targeted. ‘Slims’, for example, are mainly bought by teenage girls who have been persuaded that smoking them is ‘elegant’.
Ultimately I think public health and the economy should be pulling in the same direction. Sacrificing the former in exchange for the latter can only bring about very short-term goals. In the end, I believe, a healthy society is a prosperous one.
I understand and welcome the fact that there are people on the other side of the argument who feel differently. But I ask that they vote accordingly when this issue next comes round in October, rather than once again throwing it into the long gr