Unprecedented lobbying by the tobacco industry is threatening to derail new EU rules on cigarettes and e-cigarettes, Irish officials have warned.
Health Minister James Reilly has mobilised fellow ministers from 15 member states to issue a letter calling on members of the European Parliament to resist industry pressure.
Tobacco companies see Europe fear that if new rules regulating e-cigarettes and making packaging less attractive are passed, regions such as the US will follow.
MEPs in the centre-right European People’s Party, to which Fine Gael belongs, are deeply split ahead of a crucial vote in the Parliament next week.
As a result, the directive could be pushed into a second reading and with parliament elections next year, it would delay it until 2015.
"Tobacco remains the single largest cause of avoidable illness in the EU causing 700,000 deaths a year," the ministers said.
"There has been unprecedented lobbying of MEPs," said an Irish official. "They have been bombarded by the tobacco industry — the level exceeds anything seen in the Parliament in recent years."
Fine Gael MEP Sean Kelly described the lobbying as "excessive".
The campaign includes putting notes into cigarette packs in some countries telling smokers their MEPs are planning to interfere with their ‘enjoyment’ and a postcard campaign that has been targeting many MEPs supposedly coming from voters. Major tobacco companies are also accused of organising interest groups, such as tobacco growers and retailers, to make it appear the opposition is more widespread.
Tobacco companies object to warnings covering 75% of the package, as it will make packs look less attractive.
They also object to e-cigarettes being treated as medicinal products, as it would mean e-cigarettes would have to be approved and sold with full information about what they contain and warnings about contra indications.
"As well as nicotine, they also have other chemicals, nobody knows what they are, and there is a danger of taking in more nicotine as you don’t have to light up repeatedly," said the Irish official. "Nicotine patches are regulated in this way."
Governments could then choose whether e-cigarettes were sold just in pharmacies or in general stores.
While the industry argues that e-cigarettes are less harmful and a bridge to giving up smoking, they are being marketed heavily in the US to young people.
Menthol cigarettes would also be banned under the directive as they, and other flavours, are seen as a way of enticing people to smoke, making it easier to inhale and encouraging deeper inhalation. There is also concern about other chemicals used in cigarettes such as to suppress a cough that should happen normally after inhaling.
"We want to remove the things that make smoking attractive to young people," said the official. "We estimate if all this was put into practice it would reduce smokers by 2.3m over five years, which is just 0.2%."
Philip Morris employs 160 people and has spent 250,000 in lobbying MEPs over the past few months.
"Nobody was aware there were so many people working for this one issue," said the official.