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Markos Kyprianou

European Commissioner for Health

The Role of Pictorial Health Warnings in Europe's Tobacco Control Policy

Inaugural address, Photo Exhibition, The Power of Communications Against Tobacco
Bibliothèque Solvay, Brussels, 31 January 2007

Ladies and Gentlemen,

First may I thank the organisers of this excellent and timely event for their valuable support for our efforts to promote pictorial warnings on tobacco products throughout Europe.

And may I take this opportunity to express my congratulations to Belgium – and to Minister Demotte personally – for becoming the first EU Member State to introduce pictorial warnings on tobacco products.

These were introduced in November of last year – and, as from June, will feature on all cigarette packets sold in Belgium.

I must also thank Mr Jules Maaten and other Honourable Members of the European Parliament for their valuable input to the Tobacco Products Directive, which introduced the current warnings messages for tobacco products.

Current state of play

Warning labels on tobacco packages are an excellent tool for communicating the health risks associated with smoking.

Their prominent location on tobacco packs means that smokers and potential smokers are confronted with the warning each and every time they decide to purchase or smoke a tobacco product.

An individual who smokes one pack of cigarettes a day is therefore confronted with a health warning over 7000 times a year.

Much of the value of health warnings stems from their visibility and novelty. We need to keep the message fresh so as to avoid "exposure fatigue".

The Tobacco Products Directive of 2002 sought to do this by introducing new messages and dramatically increasing the size of the warnings.

The Directive set out two general warnings – "Smoking kills" and "Smoking seriously harms you and others around you" – and 14 additional warnings, to be placed on the front and back of each pack.

In July 2005, the Commission published its First Report on the application of the Directive, following its implementation in all Member States.

The report concluded that the new large health warnings are having a positive effect by motivating smokers to give up, and by making cigarette packets less attractive to young people.

While the current text warnings have been a success, it is now important to reinforce and amplify the messages by complementing them with graphics.

In May 2005, the Commission adopted a library of 42 colour photographs and other illustrations – three for each of the additional health warnings.

This way, Member States can choose the images best suited to their population.

In addition to Belgium, a number of other Member States (including Latvia, Portugal, Romania and the UK) have indicated their intention to use the pictures.

EU graphics will also appear on tobacco packets outside the EU. New Zealand and Switzerland have asked us for license agreements, which is excellent news.

I strongly encourage all EU governments to make use of the pictorial warnings. This would strengthen the impact of the new health warnings and play a valuable role in alienating and "de-normalising" smoking throughout Europe.

Why are pictorial warnings so effective?

"A picture paints a thousand words", as the saying goes.

Pictures help smokers to visualise the nature of tobacco related diseases and convey health messages in a clearer way.

Such warnings are likely to reach children – particularly the children of smokers, who are the most vulnerable to starting smoking.

Evidence from countries where pictorial warnings have already been introduced shows that images have a greater impact than text warnings alone.

In Canada, where graphic health warnings have been in use since 2001:

more than 7 out of 10 adults and nearly 9 out of 10 youths think that the warnings are effective at informing them about health effects;

more than 50% of smokers say the warnings compel them to smoke less around other people;

31% of ex-smokers report that picture warnings had motivated them to quit and 27% report that the warning labels helped them to keep from smoking.

In short, pictorial warnings are a cost-effective public health measure, which not only serves as a prominent source of health information but is also likely to reduce tobacco use in the population.

Other smoking prevention initiatives

Warnings labels form part of our wider strategy aimed at preventing tobacco use across Europe.

2007 will be the third year of the smoking prevention campaign “HELP – for a life without tobacco”.

The HELP campaign is the biggest public health awareness-raising initiative ever organised at EU level.

Evidence shows that so far the campaign has been highly successful in getting the message across that smokers can get help to quit, and especially warning young people of the risks of addiction and of passive smoking.

Yesterday, the Commission adopted a Green Paper on smoke-free environments.

This document aims to consult the Member States, EU Institutions and civil society on the best way forward to tackle passive smoking in Europe.

I look forward to your contributions to this discussion, which will be instrumental in defining the direction of our further action.

Need for joint action

Finally, may I stress that successful tobacco control depends on joint efforts.

Parliament, Member States, the Commission, stakeholders and international bodies all need to play their part in contributing to the overall aim of a tobacco-free Europe.

May I conclude by asking you all to help in making sure that more Member States follow the example set by Belgium and introduce the pictorial warnings on tobacco packs.

Thank you.

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