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EU: European Commission Tries To Curb Smoking

The European Union -- ready to enlarge the health warnings printed on all cigarette packs in member countries -- hopes to dramatize that warning next year with photos of suffering smokers and even diseased lungs. RFE/RL reports that the EU is looking for still more ways of discouraging the deadly habit.

Washington, 12 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- In an effort to curb smoking, the European Commission is urging EU member countries to begin printing graphic photos of diseased lungs and suffering cancer patients on cigarette packs.

This new action is a follow-up to the EU's 2001 Tobacco Products Directive, which made it obligatory to enlarge the size of the health warnings on tobacco products beginning at the end of this month.

As of that date, any cigarettes sold in EU countries must contain health warnings covering at least 30 percent of the packet's front. Next, starting in October 2004, the EU would like to see as many countries as possible add the graphic warnings to the text on the cigarette packs.

Smoking is the largest single preventable cause of disease and premature death in the world, and EU officials acknowledge the campaign is part of an all-out effort to reduce the number of smoking-related deaths in its member nations.

Thorsten Muench, the spokesman for health, consumer protection, and agricultural state aids at the EU, told RFE/RL in a telephone interview from Brussels that his organization is trying to find new and innovative ways to illustrate what he calls the "shocking truth" that half of all smokers will be killed by their habit. "Graphic health warnings have a very high potential to encourage smokers to stop or people not to start in the first place," he said.

Muench said the EU wants groups and companies to come up with sample graphic images and test their impact on different European populations. According to Muench, European audiences will likely differ on which warnings and photographs they respond to best.

He said the graphics will be compared against a list of 14 approved health warnings already in the EU database, including such phrases as: "Smokers Die Younger," "Smoking May Reduce Blood Flow and Cause Impotence," and "Smoking Can Cause a Slow and Painful Death."

According to Muench, each member state can then choose the warnings and graphics that they feel will best suit their population's taste. "It could be, of course, that because of cultural differences, some pictures may work in Northern Europe, in Finland and Sweden, but may not have the same effect [on] people in Southern Europe like Spain or Portugal," he said.

Muench said that past research has demonstrated that when graphic pictures are added to written warnings, the illustrations can "speak more than a thousand words." He adds that there is convincing evidence in Canada and Brazil, where graphic warnings have been mandatory since 2001, that the combination of a picture and a written warning has been more effective than the text alone.

Besides the big print warnings, Muench said that as of the end of this month, tobacco companies will also be required to alternate the written text on the packets, so smokers are aware of and understand the wide array of health risks they take by smoking. "It's important that a rotation takes place so that people again and again see different health warnings -- also to get their attention."

The EU is also encouraging member states to place information about a "Quitline" on the packs. This would list a telephone number, e-mail, or web address where smokers can get free information on how to kick the habit, Muench said.

Although graphic photos on cigarette packs will not be obligatory, Muench said EU states will not be allowed to restrict or prevent the import of cigarettes from other member states that have introduced the new graphics.

Muench admitted that the graphic photographs will likely not deter lifelong smokers, but he added that the EU hopes they will discourage young, new, or light smokers.