Europe comes down hard on smokers

The sale of cigarettes in packets of 10 is expected to be banned by 2016 after MEPs voted for tighter restrictions on tobacco use throughout Europe. Electronic cigarette substitutes, which are increasingly popular as a less harmful alternative to smoking, will be subjected to the same limitations on advertising as ordinary tobacco products.

Linda McAvan, the British Labour MEP who drafted the legislation aimed at reducing smoking among women and young people, said the rules would protect "children from being targeted by tobacco companies" via the lure of attractive branding, small female-friendly packs and flavoured cigarettes. "Four thousand British children start smoking each week - that's a staggering 200,000 new childhood smokers a year," she said.

The rules must be agreed by ministers and voted on again by the European Parliament before they become law throughout the European Union, but this is not expected to pose an obstacle. The ban on packets of 10 would affect two million British smokers because the small packs - targeted by the EU because they are thought to be favoured by the young - account for 38 per cent of cigarettes sold in the UK. It came under immediate fire from the smokers' group Forest. Its campaigns manager, Angela Harbutt, said that buying smaller packets was "an economic necessity" for some.

"It is a mean-spirited measure that punishes those on low incomes," she said. Apart from Britain, Italy is the only other EU country that does not already require cigarettes to be sold in packets of 19 or 20. The ban will also have an impact on smokers of hand-rolled tobacco.

Many British roll-up smokers buy their leaf tobacco in 12.5g packets which will be banned by the EU, with a new minimum sales weight of 20g. MEPs also voted to ban menthol cigarettes by 2022, a decision that delayed by five years a European Commission proposal that would have prohibited mint, fruit or sweet flavoured tobacco by the end of 2016. The menthol ban will eventually wipe out annual British cigarette sales worth up to 650 million ($1.26 billion), imposing losses of over 6 billion a year on the tobacco industry, which has warned that the measure will lead to more smuggling.

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