Strasbourg, France - The EU has expanded warnings on cigarette packages and banned tobacco flavourings in the latest push to get smokers to kick a habit that kills one of them every minute.

The European Parliament voted yesterday to require that cigarette packs feature a combined pictorial and text alert covering 65 percent of the front and back. Under current rules, anti-smoking images on packs are optional while text warnings are mandatory.

The 28-nation EU assembly decided to prohibit cigarettes and rolling tobacco with characterising flavours, including menthol, which will be phased out by 2020. The law also takes aim at electronic cigarettes, the strongest of which will need authorisation as a medicine. E-cigarettes deliver nicotine via inhaled vapour.

“The new measures are a big step forward for tobacco control and will help to prevent the next generation of smokers from being recruited,” Linda McAvan, a UK member who steered the legislation through the 766-seat assembly in France, said.

EU governments have signalled support, making the final approval scheduled for March 14 a formality.

Tobacco kills 695 000 people a year in the EU, or one person every 45 seconds, according to the European Commission, which says a third of Europeans smoke. Smoking is the largest avoidable health risk in Europe, causing more problems than alcohol, drugs, high blood pressure, high cholesterol or obesity, says the EU’s regulatory arm, which proposed tougher rules in December 2012.

Cancers as well as cardiovascular and respiratory diseases are linked to tobacco use. Saying that 70 percent of smokers start before the age of 18, the commission describes the goal of its proposal as to make tobacco goods less attractive to young people.

Under the new legislation, which will replace a 2001 EU tobacco law, the health warnings will have to appear at the top of packages. The packs will have to include an information message that tobacco smoke contains more than 70 cancer-causing substances. Slim cigarettes will be allowed to remain on the market, but lipstick-style packages will be prohibited.

The treatment of e-cigarettes threatened to derail the law because the EU parliament had voted against a plan, proposed by the commission and endorsed by the bloc’s health ministers, to regulate these as medicines. The parliament argued that e-cigarettes curbed tobacco smoking and deserved a lighter regulatory touch.

Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) and national governments struck a compromise on e-cigarettes in December, deciding those with a nicotine strength of more than 20mg/ml will be regulated under a 2001 law on medicinal products. E-cigarettes below the threshold will fall under new EU tobacco legislation unless the manufacturer seeks authorisation from member states as a medicine. – Bloomberg