By Claire Davenport and Ilona Wissenbach
BRUSSELS/LUXEMBOURG (Reuters) - European Union health ministers agreed on Friday to ease tough planned restrictions on tobacco products to overcome opposition from some governments to the draft rules.
The ministers rejected a ban on slim cigarettes proposed by the bloc's executive, the European Commission, but said they should be sold in normal-sized packets to reduce their appeal. They also agreed to outlaw menthol cigarettes and other tobacco flavorings.
The bloc's health commissioner said that, despite the need for compromise in order to reach an agreement, the spirit of the Commission's original proposals has been retained.
"The main thrust is that tobacco should look like tobacco - not like perfume or candy - and that it should taste like tobacco as well," the Maltese commissioner Tonio Borg told a news conference in Luxembourg after the ministerial talks.
Cigarette sales in the 27-nation EU bloc have fallen sharply in recent years but - at about 33 percent - Europe still has a higher proportion of smokers than any other region of the globe, according to data from the World Health Organization.
The Commission proposed a crackdown on attractive tobacco branding in December, saying such branding was designed to recruit a new generation of younger smokers to replace the estimated 700,000 Europeans who die of smoking-related illnesses each year.
The discussions pitted western European nations that favor tough tobacco controls against a group of central and eastern member states led by Poland - one of Europe's top cigarette producers - who fear the impact on tobacco industry jobs.
The Commission's proposal that graphic visual and written warnings should cover 75 percent of the surface of all cigarette packets in future - leaving just 25 percent or less for the brand - was weakened to 65 per cent by ministers on Friday.
Poland, Bulgaria, Romania and the Czech Republic did not support the compromise, but their opposition is not enough to prevent the law from being adopted.
Irish Health Minister James Reilly, who led Friday's talks, dismissed economic arguments against tougher tobacco controls.
"It can never be - never - a choice between jobs and lives," he told reporters.
Holding up a slim metallic cigarette packet designed to look like a lipstick, Reilly said: "That is advertising. That is entrapment of young people."
In 2010, the world's four leading tobacco companies - British American Tobacco, Imperial Tobacco, Japan Tobacco, and Philip Morris - produced more than 90 percent of the cigarettes sold in Europe, the Commission said.
Last month, Ireland became the first European country to agree a ban on all branding on cigarette packs in favor of plain packaging and uniform labeling, following the example of Australia.
While the EU proposals stop short of a full ban on branding, ministers agreed that countries such as Ireland should be free to impose plain packaging if they choose.
The proposals must also get the approval of the European Parliament before becoming law, and the lawmaker leading the debate in the assembly has called for a total ban on branding.
Friday's agreement means the rules could be finalized before the start of European Parliament elections next May, allowing them to enter force in 2016.
The draft rules have been in development for more than two years and were the focus of intense lobbying by the tobacco industry.
They played a part in the October resignation of former EU Health Commissioner John Dalli, after one of his associates was accused of seeking bribes from Swedish Match, a producer of moist oral-snuff known as "snus", in return for lifting a sales ban on the product outside Sweden.
Under the agreement, the sale of snus would remain illegal across the EU except in Sweden. But a proposal that would have forced snus producers to reformulate their products to remove distinctive flavorings was dropped.
As concerns grow over the unregulated use of increasingly popular electronic cigarettes, ministers tightened proposed controls by agreeing that those containing 1 milligram (mg) of nicotine or more would be classified as medicinal products requiring prior EU marketing approval.
That also applied to e-cigarettes containing 2 mg or more per milliliter for those that mix nicotine with water.
(Writing by Charlie Dunmore; editing by Tom Pfeiffer)