By Barbara Lewis
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - EU politicians voted for a new anti-tobacco law on Wednesday that forces cigarette makers to increase the size of health warnings on packets and for the first time regulates electronic cigarettes.
Campaigners say the vote marked a turning point for public health, but that intensive industry lobbying had reduced the impact of a law designed to tackle an estimated 700,000 tobacco-related deaths in Europe every year.
Following Wednesday's plenary vote at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, ministers from EU member states are expected to give the law final endorsement next month, although it will only start taking effect from 2016.
Cigarettes and other products will have to carry graphic picture and text warnings covering 65 percent of the front and back of packets.
Countries contemplating bans on all cigarette branding, such as Britain and Ireland, will be able to introduce plain packaging if they wish.
The rules also include a ban on smoking tobacco products containing flavors such as fruit or vanilla. Menthol cigarettes will be banned from 2020, after some governments demanded a slower phase-out.
"By ensuring that tobacco products look and taste like tobacco products, the new rules will help to reduce the number of people who start smoking in the EU," European Health Commissioner Tonio Borg said in a statement.
EU diplomats had endorsed the deal in December after striking an agreement on how tightly to regulate the market for e-cigarettes, which some analysts say could eclipse the $700 billion-a-year market for ordinary cigarettes in 10 years.
MARKET OF THE FUTURE?
Big tobacco firms, including Philip Morris owner Altria, British American Tobacco and Imperial Tobacco have all moved into the sector to offset declining cigarette sales, particularly in developed countries.
E-cigarettes are meant to help smokers give up conventional cigarettes, but the Commission says the long-term effects on health are not yet clear, hence the need for regulation.
In addition to respecting packaging and advertising rules, e-cigarette makers will have to notify member state governments before putting new products on the market and report annually on sales volumes.
Campaigners said the new requirements would make it harder for companies to use misleading marketing to attract customers, but some voiced concern about the impact of the industry lobby.
The original proposal from the European Commission, the EU executive, was weakened over the course of negotiations, making the size of the health warnings smaller than planned and a phase-in period was introduced.
"Overall, the final outcome is an improvement compared to the existing rules, but considering the deadly impacts of smoking, much more could and should have been achieved," Olivier Hoedeman, research and campaigns coordinator at Corporate Europe Observatory, a Brussels corruption watchdog said.
The Confederation of European Community Cigarette Manufacturers in a statement said it had openly contributed to the debate over the last two years.
It said many of the measures were disproportionate and unlikely to achieve their ends. "They will more likely lead to a rise in profits for criminal gangs, who sell much cheaper, unregulated products," the confederation's Chairman Michiel Reerink said.
(Editing by Stephen Powell)