By Claire Davenport
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Parliament voted on Tuesday to water down proposed tobacco legislation, rejecting an immediate ban on menthol cigarettes and scaling down the size of health warnings on packets following intense lobbying by tobacco companies.
The European Commission, the EU's executive, had proposed some of the world's toughest anti-tobacco laws, including graphic health warnings covering 75 percent of packets, an effort to deter young people from smoking.
It also wanted e-cigarettes, which deliver nicotine electronically and are a booming market, to be sold only on medicinal grounds, rather than being sold direct to consumers.
Many of those proposals were also supported by EU member states, but the parliament rejected them as too harsh, saying instead that it would only implement a ban on menthol cigarettes in 8 years' time and that health warnings should cover only 65 percent of cigarette packets.
The parliament also said manufacturers should be free to sell e-cigarettes in supermarkets as long as they are not specifically marketed as an aide to help quit smoking.
The vote means negotiations on a compromise will now take place among the parliament, EU member states and the Commission, with the aim of having the legislation, known as the Tobacco Products Directive, passed before May next year.
"This is a shameful day for the European Parliament," said Carl Schlyter, a member of the Green party from Sweden.
"(The) centre-right majority has done the bidding of the tobacco industry and voted for weaker rules."
Despite parliament's softer stance, its amendments would still substantially alter tobacco packaging and make pictorial warnings mandatory in every EU country. Current law demands that verbal health warnings cover 30 percent of a pack's front and 40 percent of the back, but pictures are not obligatory.
Philip Morris, the world's largest listed tobacco company, which lobbied hard against the Commission's proposals, was cautiously positive about Tuesday's vote.
"Today's vote in the European Parliament has introduced marginal improvement in some areas, but has still failed to take into account the views of millions of EU citizens," it said, emphasizing how many jobs were created by the tobacco industry.
Despite the scaling back of the original proposals, which the Commission says are aimed at cutting down on the estimated 700,000 EU citizens who die each year from tobacco-related causes, the move by parliament was not unexpected.
A senior official from Ireland was among those who warned last week that lobbying efforts by Philip Morris and other companies had intensified and looked likely to succeed in getting the proposals watered down.
"The level of lobbying at the moment exceeds any campaign that has gone on in the parliament in recent years," the official told reporters last week. "This completely on a scale way beyond lobbying that normally goes on."
The centre-right European People's Party (EPP), the largest bloc in the parliament, said the vote was appropriate and that the European Union would still end up with some of the world's strongest tobacco legislation with the proposed law.
"I would have preferred stricter measures, but I welcome the fact that... we managed to avoid inappropriate steps such as a call for the introduction of plain packaging," said Karl-Heinz Florenz, who lead discussions on the proposals for the EPP.
"The new Tobacco Products Directive will be finalized next year despite the intense and tough lobbying of the tobacco industry, which was aimed at delaying and frustrating the decision-making."
One of the main concerns of anti-smoking lawmakers was parliament's position on delaying a ban on menthol cigarettes.
Studies show that flavored cigarettes are becoming increasingly popular among young smokers and often act as a 'gateway' to other tobacco products.
"It's a facilitator to make young people start smoking, that is why it is crucially important to have this ban," said Schlyter, the Green MEP from Sweden.
Another area of concern is e-cigarettes, which some industry analysts predict will outsell traditional cigarettes by 2023. By making them available only on medicinal grounds, anti-smoking lawmakers had hoped to cut down on their availability.
Manufacturers of e-cigarettes were pleased with the move by parliament.
"For 12 million people in the EU, e-cigarettes have and continue to provide a viable alternative to smoking tobacco cigarettes," said Fraser Cropper, chief executive of Totally Wicked, saying that by voting against the medicinal regulation, parliament had moved beyond the 'quit-or-die' debate.
The coming months promise more intense lobbying by Philip Morris and others to influence the negotiations among member states, parliament and the Commission.
Internal Philip Morris documents leaked to the media and seen by Reuters show that lobbyists held over 250 meetings with members of parliament to discuss the legislation, especially with members of the EPP and with conservatives from countries where cigarettes are manufactured.
The company said it was logical that it would lobby against a law that directly impacts its business.
(Reporting By Claire Davenport; editing by Luke Baker)