File picture: Seth Wenig

Brussels - Tobacco companies, including Philip Morris International and British American Tobacco (BAT), received a blow from an adviser to the EU’s top court in their battle against EU orders to cover cigarette packs with graphic pictures and warning signs.

The 2014 EU rules “make a particular contribution to increasing the visibility of health warnings and maximising their efficacy”, Advocate General Juliane Kokott of the EU Court of Justice said in a non-binding opinion yesterday.

“The coolness or the fun factor” and “the curiosity that may be inherent in new or unusual packaging then has a lesser influence on the decision to purchase”.

Yesterday’s opinion stems from a UK court case where judges last year asked their EU peers whether the European rules were valid. Philip Morris, BAT, Imperial Tobacco Group and Japan Tobacco, who control almost all of the £18.7 billion (R420.2bn) UK market earlier this month went to court again, this time claiming British measures violated the companies’ intellectual property rights.

The Luxembourg-based court’s final ruling – expected in four to six months – will be binding and usually follows the opinions of its advocates general.

The contested EU rules replaced a 2001 EU tobacco law forcing cigarette makers to put health warnings at the top of packages. Nations must ensure firms apply the measures, which also include a mandatory information message that tobacco smoke contains more than 70 cancer-causing substances.

Tobacco kills as many as 695 000 people a year in the EU, or one person every 45 seconds, according to the European Commission, which says a third of European adults still smoke.