LUXEMBOURG (AP) -- The European Union moved further on Friday toward a major clampdown on tobacco, with member states backing plans for bigger and bolder health warnings on cigarette packs and bans on most flavorings like menthol.
Under the proposals, mandatory warnings would take up 65 percent of tobacco packaging and be more prominent, with the inclusion of gruesome pictorials.
Friday's plan of the member states now goes for negotiation to the European Parliament, where even tougher curbs on the use of tobacco might be sought.
"We have an opportunity today to step up to the mark, or we can walk away and fail our children," said Irish Health Minister James Reilly.
EU Health Commissioner Tonio Borg said the crackdown was aimed at reducing smoking-related deaths, which stand at around 700,000 a year in the 27-nation bloc.
The members want to stop youngsters being swayed into smoking by new, fancy packaging or exciting flavors that could get them hooked. Therefore, Friday's plan also included minimum sizes for packs to counter the 'lipstick' packaging that is the rave these days.
The ministers weakened somewhat Borg's initial proposals, but the major points survived, including a ban for tobacco products including flavors such as strawberry or menthol since they fear it eases the entry into smoking for youngsters.
Whatever the overall EU regulations become, individual member states would be allowed to impose even tougher rules as they please.
The blueprint was decided despite the opposition of four nations that are more lenient toward smoking: Poland, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria and Romania.
Borg said he hopes to get 2.4 million smokers to kick the habit in the next five years based on tougher regulations. The European Commission says 28 percent of the EU's 500 million citizens still smoke.
Tobacco companies increasingly rely on their packaging to build brand loyalty and grab consumers since it is one of the few advertising levers left to them since authorities already have curbed their presence in magazines and on billboards and TV.
"The main thrust is that tobacco should look like tobacco and not like perfume or a candy, and that tobacco should taste like tobacco," said Borg.
The EU has said that treating smoking-related diseases costs about 25 billion euro ($33 billion) a year and results in annual productivity losses of 8 billion euro ($10.5 billion).
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