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Photograph: Freeimages.com/teoman yuksel

Smokers across the European Union will soon be confronted with larger and more graphic health warnings on cigarette and tobacco products, under new rules that come into effect Friday but are lagging in implementation.

The restrictions, which also include a phaseout of flavoured cigarettes, 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.

"The benefits of falling smoking rates are clear," EU Health Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis said in a statement.

"Not only do people enjoy better health and well-being, and significantly lower rates of chronic diseases and premature death related to tobacco, there is also a substantial economic benefit," he added, noting that a 2-per-cent cut in tobacco use could save 506 million euros (567 million dollars) in annual EU health-care costs.

Under the new rules, which apply to products manufactured from Friday, cigarettes and tobacco products must feature bigger and more graphic health warnings, covering 65 per cent of the front and back of packages. Member states can also introduce plain packaging.

Companies have 12 more months to sell off old stock that does not comply with the new standards.

The new rules also include a ban on flavoured cigarettes and tobacco products, although products with a market share of more than 3 per cent - such as menthol cigarettes - will have a grace period until 2020.

By Friday, however, just 11 of the EU's 28 member states had informed the European Commission that they had implemented the new rules.

These are Belgium, Britain, Bulgaria, Germany, Estonia, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Portugal and Slovakia. Ireland is expected to follow suit on Saturday, the commission said.

Meanwhile, five countries have opted for plain packaging: Britain, France, Ireland, Hungary and Slovenia.

Andriukaitis was confident that other countries would soon adopt the new rules, pointing to an "anti-tobacco momentum" that has emerged in the EU in recent years.

Last week, the European Court of Justice - the bloc's top tribunal - dismissed challenges brought by tobacco companies and eastern European countries opposed to the tougher requirements.

Critics had argued that the reforms would limit consumer choice, fuel the illegal trade in cigarettes, cut government revenues and cause job losses, but the court found that the restrictions are appropriate to protect human health and reduce differences between member states.

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