MEPs, under pressure from manufacturers and users of e cigarettes, had refused to accept an EU ban on refillable cartridges. But member states are concerned the cartridges are unsafe and had been demanding an EU ban. They are generally worried about the possibility of unknown long term health effects from these new products.

The issue of how to regulate e cigarettes had become so contentious that it threatened to derail the overall reform of EU tobacco rules (see box) in the final weeks of negotiations. Removing e cigarettes entirely from the proposal was being entertained as a solution.

That would have pleased e cigarette enthusiasts, who argue that the product has no place in the legislation because it contains no tobacco.

But a compromise was agreed yesterday which would permit the sale of refillable cartridges no larger than 2 millilitres, while empowering member states to ban specific types of cartridges where justified by safety concerns. If three member states were to adopt a ban on a specific cartridge, the European Commission could unilaterally impose an EU level ban, without approval by Parliament or member states. Manufacturers and users still fear that this could allow bans through the back door on all refillable e cigarettes.

Medicine debate

The conflict over whether e cigarettes should be regulated as general products, preferred by MEPs, or as medicines, preferred by member states, was also resolved with a compromise. EU law will regulate them as general products, but member states may classify them as pharmaceuticals if they wish. A manufacturer can also choose to have its e cigarette authorised as a pharmaceutical. E cigarettes will be limited to a maximum permitted nicotine concentration level per cigarette of 20 mg/ml, roughly equivalent to the amount of nicotine in one pack of regular cigarettes.

The full parliament is expected to vote on the deal in March, followed by a final rubber stamp from health ministers.

The new tobacco products directive

All characterising flavours will be banned, though the menthol flavour will be given a four year derogation until 2020.

Graphic pictorial health warnings covering 65% of the front and back of cigarette packs will be required. Member states can go further and ban branding if they wish.

An EU wide tracking and tracing system will be set up to combat illicit trade of tobacco products. Cross border internet sales will be banned.

Bbc news – meps tighten anti-tobacco laws aimed at young smokers

Green smoke review

Packs of 10 cigarettes, considered popular among younger smokers, will also be banned.

Fourteen EU states already have 20 as the minimum, four stipulate a minimum of 19, and in the UK and Italy the minimum is 10.

Smaller than normal packs of roll your own tobacco will still be allowed under the new rules.

It was the European Parliament’s first reading of a draft tobacco directive which could become law in 2014. It would then take two more years to become law in each of the 28 EU member states.

There has been intense lobbying of MEPs by the tobacco industry and health campaigners.

The Commission says almost 700,000 Europeans die from smoking related illnesses each year equal to the population of Frankfurt or Palermo. The costs for healthcare in the EU are estimated to be at least 25.3bn euros ( 20.6bn $33.4bn) annually.

Mixed reactions

Conservative and Liberal MEPs welcomed the amendments made to the original proposal from Labour’s Linda McAvan.

Speaking to the BBC, Ms McAvan said she was disappointed that slim cigarettes were not banned.

But cigarette packaging made to look like lipstick or perfume containers attractive to girls will disappear, she noted.

There will now be further negotiations with the Council the grouping of relevant EU ministers. MEPs may manage to avoid a second vote and fast track the legislation so that it is adopted before the May 2014 European elections.

The proposals also include a ban on words like “light”, “mild” and “low tar”, deemed to be misleading, and a ban on oral tobacco called snus although Sweden would retain its exemption.

EU Health Commissioner Tonio Borg called the vote “positive”. “I am confident that the revised Directive on Tobacco Products can still be adopted within the mandate of the current Parliament,” he said.

But Carl Schlyter MEP, health spokesman for the Greens, called it “a shameful day for the European Parliament, as a centre right majority, led by the EPP group, has done the bidding of the tobacco industry and voted for weaker rules”.