By Claire Davenport
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - European officials complained on Friday that legislation regulating the sale of tobacco products is being held up in the European Parliament because of intense lobbying by cigarette manufacturers.
The EU Tobacco Products Directive calls for mandatory text and picture health warnings covering 75 percent of the front and back of cigarette packs and would ban the sale of specially flavored cigarettes such as menthol and cinnamon.
The proposed measures were agreed among EU member states in June. The 750-member parliament will hold a vote on October 8 to decide whether to move forward with negotiations on the proposals or allow time for further amendments.
"There is an unprecedentedly intense lobbying campaign from the industry going on inside the European Parliament with the express intention of trying to frustrate this legislation," a senior Irish official said on Friday, briefing journalists on condition of anonymity.
"This is completely on a scale way beyond lobbying that normally goes on."
He said officials had been surprised to discover that cigarette manufacturers and their lobbyists had knowledge of precise elements of the law barely 24 hours after they were agreed behind closed doors.
"The level of lobbying at the moment exceeds any campaign that has gone on in the parliament in recent years," he said.
The aim of the legislation is to combat smoking among the young and cut down on the estimated 700,000 EU citizens who die of tobacco-related causes each year.
CALL BY MINISTERS
In an unusual move, 16 of the EU's health ministers issued a joint statement on Friday urging the parliament to begin negotiating with EU governments on the legislation as quickly as possible so as to finalize the law by the end of the year.
"Ministers urged MEPs to take this opportunity to significantly improve the health of millions of EU citizens by working with the Council and the European Commission for the early adoption of the Tobacco Products Directive," they said.
Parliament will hold a first vote on amendments to the proposal on Tuesday as well as decide whether to begin negotiating with governments. If it rejects negotiations so as to allow more time for amendments, it would force further delays and would mean the law is not approved for another year or more.
Among the amendments are calls to reduce the size of health warnings to 50 percent from 75 percent and to allow menthol as a flavoring.
Philip Morris and other manufacturers have been widely criticized by officials, diplomats and some MEPs for the extent and intensity of their lobbying against the legislation.
Internal Philip Morris documents leaked to the media and seen by Reuters show that lobbyists have held over 250 meetings with members of parliament to discuss the legislation, especially with conservatives.
In a statement last month responding to criticism, Philip Morris said it was merely trying to express its views on the legislative proposals, and pointed out that it employed 12,500 people in the EU and had invested hundreds of millions of euros.
"The argument that we should remain silent in the face of a proposal that directly concerns us, and on which we have facts and improvement ideas to share, is illogical," said Drago Azinovic, the president of the company for the EU region.
"We have and will continue to express our views proactively and transparently. As the EU itself says, this kind of interaction is 'constant, legitimate and necessary for the quality of democracy'."
(Writing by Luke Baker; editing by Andrew Roche)