WARSAW (Reuters) - Poland will appeal to Europe's top court over a European Union ban on flavoured tobacco products, saying it will be unfairly affected as one of the region's biggest consumers and producers of menthol cigarettes.
The ban is a part of EU-wide anti-smoking legislation, due to be implemented in 2016, which also includes tougher rules on packaging and marketing.
Polish Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the Economy Janusz Piechocinski has said that menthol-flavoured cigarettes should be considered a traditional product - not unlike the Swedish "snus", powdered tobacco placed under the lip – and therefore exempt from the directive.
According to the World Lung Foundation, Poland remains one of the EU's heavy-smoking nations, with annual consumption of 1,586 cigarettes per capita - twice as large as Britain's.
But while the country's tobacco consumption rates are by no means extraordinary, its affection for menthol certainly is: nearly one in every five cigarettes sold here is menthol-flavoured, compared to one in ten in Sweden and below one in a hundred in Spain, Austria or Slovakia.
"Menthol cigarettes were introduced to Poland in 1953 and Polish smokers have developed a unique taste for them," said Magdalena Wlodarczyk, representing British American Tobacco, Imperial Tobacco, Philip Morris and Japan Tobacco International, which together have 99 percent of the Polish market.
"There is no reason why they should get hit so hard over this."
As well as being a consumer, the country is also the second-largest producer of tobacco in the EU, with Polish tobacco farms employing over 60,000 people.
It is also the seventh-largest manufacturer of cigarettes in the world, with five processing sites and six factories employing further thousands.
Poland's tobacco industry welcomed the government's appeal, to be made to the Court of Justice of the European Union.
"Burley, the tobacco used in production of menthol cigarettes because of its flavour-absorbing properties accounts for nearly 40 percent of Poland's production," said Lech Ostrowski, head of the National Union of Tobacco Farmers, representing 7,000 producers.
"We can't all switch to growing Virginia, because the market will simply not accommodate it and prices will fall."
A report commissioned by Poland's National Association of the Tobacco Industry says the new tobacco legislation will destroy 30,000 jobs in production, manufacturing and distribution.
The report also estimates that it will cost the country up to nine billion zlotys (2 billion pounds) in lost tax revenue every year, as Polish menthol smokers turn to cigarettes smuggled in from Belarus and Ukraine.
A KPMG study commissioned by the same body estimates that illegal cigarettes account for over 10 percent of market share across the EU and nearly 14 percent in Poland itself.
"By ensuring that tobacco products look and taste like tobacco products, the new rules will help to reduce the number of people who start smoking in the EU," European Health Commissioner Tonio Borg said in a statement.
Borg spoke of the devastating effect tobacco had on the health of EU citizens, citing 700,000 premature deaths every year and 14 fewer years of life on average for smokers.
Poland's Minister of Health Bartosz Arlukowicz supported the legislation, and Piechocinski said the appeal caused a "fierce argument" between them.
But while the economic concerns seem to have ultimately outweighed the public health risks, the Agriculture Minister Marek Sawicki said that tobacco farmers needed to use the time the appeal buys them and invest in other crops, as "the war for tobacco was already lost".
(Editing by Keiron Henderson)