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Photograph: Freeimages.com/Domagoj T.

Controversial new EU rules to curb smoking are legal, the bloc's top court ruled Wednesday, dismissing challenges brought by tobacco companies and eastern European countries against packaging restrictions and a ban on flavoured tobacco products.

The new rules are meant to discourage young people in particular from taking up smoking.

Twenty-eight per cent of the approximately 500 million citizens in the EU are believed to be smokers, and an estimated 700,000 Europeans die of tobacco-related diseases every year.

Under the new rules, tobacco products in the 28-country bloc will feature bigger and more graphic health warnings, which should cover 65 per cent of the front and back of tobacco packages. Countries wishing to introduce plain packaging can do so.

Flavourings in cigarettes and roll-your-own tobacco are to be banned if they cover the taste of tobacco, with popular menthol cigarettes to be prohibited from 2020.

Electronic cigarettes, which are also often flavoured, are to be regulated separately to ensure safety and quality standards.

Slim cigarettes will have to be sold in less attractive packaging.

Other measures seek to better combat illicit products and regulate online tobacco sales.

EU countries are supposed to incorporate the rules into their national laws this year, but longer phase-out periods are foreseen for tobacco products that are already on the market.

The new legislation was fiercely opposed by the tobacco industry and faced several legal challenges, including by tobacco giant Philip Morris, the electronic cigarette producer Pillbox 38 and EU member state Poland, which also received backing from Romania.

The two countries were among several eastern European nations that had sought to block the new rules while they were being negotiated.

Critics had argued that the reforms would limit consumer choice, fuel the illegal trade in cigarettes, cut government revenues and cause job losses.

The European Court of Justice examined specifically the new labelling and packaging requirements, the ban on menthol cigarettes and special rules for electronic cigarettes.

The Luxembourg-based judges found the new rules to be in line with EU laws, appropriate for protecting human health and useful in limiting divergences between the bloc's member states.

The court rejected Poland's suggestions for less restrictive limitations on menthol cigarettes rather than an all-out ban - such as an increased age limit, a prohibition on cross-border sales or health warnings.

"Menthol, by its pleasant flavour, makes tobacco products more attractive to consumers," the court said in a statement.

"Reducing the attractiveness of those products may contribute to reducing the prevalence of tobacco use and dependence among new and continuing users," it added.

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