EU court backs Brussels against tobacco giants

  • 2002-12-12

The EU's top court Dec. 10 upheld tough rules on the smoking industry, ruling against two tobacco groups in its latest move to stub out the health hazards linked to the habit.

In a move welcomed by the European Commission, the European Court of Justice turned down a case brought by British-American Tobacco Ltd. and Imperial Tobacco Ltd.

The court notably backed a ban on the terms "light" and "mild" being used on cigarette packets, saying they could be misleading.

"The court upholds the validity of the directive on the manufacture, presentation and sale of tobacco products," the Luxembourg-based court said in a statement.

The EU directive, adopted in June 2001, imposed strict limits on levels of tar, nicotine and carbon monoxide.

The two tobacco groups had challenged the transposition of the EU directive into British law at the High Court of Justice in London, which referred the case to the ECJ.

The EU court said that Brussels was right to ban the use of terms like "mild" on cigarette packets because they could mislead smokers into thinking cigarettes were not harmful to health.

"The ban on the use on tobacco product packaging of descriptive terms suggesting that a certain tobacco product is less harmful than others (for example, "light" or "mild") which might mislead consumers, is appropriate for attaining a high level of health protection," said the court.

The European Commission, the EU's executive arm, expressed satisfaction at the ruling. "The commission welcomes the court ruling," said a spokesman for Health and Consumer Protection Commis-sioner David Byrne.

"It confirms that the tobacco directive is valid, and also that the harmonization of the internal market is the legal basis for tobacco products," said the spokesman.

The decision comes barely a week after the EU agreed to a hard-hitting ban on tobacco advertising and sponsorship of major events such as Formula One racing.

A new directive issued last week bans tobacco advertising in the written press, on the radio and over the Internet - media that the executive European Commission said transcend EU borders.

"This is another nail in the coffin of the tobacco industry," Byrne said after 13 out of 15 EU health ministers agreed on the move.

Britain and Germany opposed the measure but under the "qualified majority" rule, their votes were not enough to block it.

"In the European Union alone, Big Tobacco needs to recruit 500,000 new smokers each year to replace the ones who die prematurely due to smoking-related diseases," Byrne said last week.

Britain wanted tougher rules while Germany was loath to limit the high levels of tobacco advertising in its newspapers and magazines, officials said.