New rules being discussed by European Union ministers would ban menthol and slim cigarettes, a move intended to improve the health of Europeans but one that has divided it broadly along cold war lines.
Led by Poland, one of Europe's biggest tobacco producers, a bloc of former communist countries is fighting a rearguard action against the measures, hoping at least to save slim cigarettes, which are popular with many smokers, often women.
The concern of the rule drafters is that slim cigarettes add an allure that attracts young women to smoking and that menthol cigarettes make it easier for young people of both sexes to start, and become hooked on, smoking.
But Poland stands to lose tobacco industry jobs and some politicians worry about seeming high-handed to smokers, an estimated third of the population.
"It's about freedom, to a large extent," said Roza Grafin von Thun und Hohenstein, a centre-right Polish member of the European Parliament.
Thun said she supported the health impulses behind the draft legislation but after listening to objections from voters at a meeting in Krakow she decided the rules should be relaxed. "People said, 'When are you going to prohibit us from drinking wine or vodka, or stop us using white sugar? Maybe you will also tell us to go to bed early because going to bed late is also unhealthy'."
The proposed rules, due to be discussed by ministers yesterday, would also require that pictures of smoking-related medical problems and written health warnings cover 75 per cent of the front and back of cigarette packs. This provision may be scaled back after haggling among health ministers who will be debating the rules in Brussels. Any new regulations would require the approval of the European Parliament before becoming law.
Tobacco has been a troublesome issue for the European Union's executive arm, the European Commission, which has run public health campaigns to cut smoking but only recently removed direct agricultural subsidies for growing tobacco.
The commission came up with the proposed rules in December. They are supported by Ireland, which holds the EU's rotating presidency and they would save lives and money.
"Approximately 700,000 Europeans die every single year of tobacco-related causes," Ireland's health minister, James Reilly, said in a speech this year. "Smoking is the largest avoidable health risk in Europe, causing more problems than alcohol, drug abuse and obesity."
The annual public health care cost attached to smoking in Europe was estimated at €25.3 billion (HK$260 billion), Reilly said. He cited recent studies showing 70 per cent of smokers began their habit before age 18.
Menthol brands make up 18 per cent of Polish consumption.