Health

Commission remains vulnerable to Big Tobaccos siren song, report says

The European Commission is unprepared for an impending lobbying blitz by the tobacco industry, according to a report released Thursday by watchdog Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO).

According to the NGO, the industry is gearing up for a fight ahead of the review of the Tobacco Products Directive in 2021. The latest version of the legislation, which entered into force in 2016, tried to limit the impact of smoking through stricter laws on cigarette packaging and a phase-out of flavored tobacco products.

Its now up for review again, with the potential for new amendments to account for recent developments such as the popularity of e-cigarettes.

The corporate watchdog listed a raft of transparency-related shortcomings by the Commission, including 36 undisclosed meetings between EU officials and tobacco industry representatives since 2017. It also found the process of obtaining information on lobbying contacts burdensome, while the information that does end up released lacks detail.

The issue of transparency has long been fraught. The last time the directive was up for revision, then-Commissioner for Health John Dalli resigned after an OLAF investigation revealed his involvement in an attempted bribery scandal as well as other controversial industry tactics at that time.

While lobbyist meetings attended by commissioners, Cabinets and directors general are disclosed (amounting to six since 2017), the vast majority of lower-level interactions fly under the radar.

With the Commission now trying to turn a corner, President Ursula von der Leyen has issued guidelines stating that “we need more transparency throughout the legislative process.”

“Citizens should know who we … meet and discuss with and what positions we defend in the legislative process,” she added.

To date, the Commission has signed up to the World Health Organizations Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), which stipulates that governments ought to minimize the influence of the tobacco industry by reducing interactions to a minimum, CEO noted.

“The [WHO] rules are crystal clear: Tobacco control policies, aiming to prevent diseases and deaths for millions of people, should be protected against the tobacco industrys lobbying,” said Olivier Hoedeman, a researcher at CEO. “One of these protective measures is proactive transparency to enable scrutiny.”

The challenge noted by the report: While lobbyist meetings attended by commissioners, Cabinets and directors general are disclosed (amounting to six since 2017), the vast majority of lower-level interactions fly under the radar.

Shining a light on lobbying

To unearth more details, CEO has made freedom of information requests asking for all interactions between the Commission and the tobacco industry since 2017.

But it found the process “extremely burdensome” and “not a workable option,” noting that documents were slow to be released; scattered across a number of different sub-requests; and requiring a number of appeals and reminders. As for notes of recorded meetings, they often lacked detail and were heavily redacted.

Broad industry federations such as BusinessEurope and the American Chamber of Commerce were excluded from the FoIs — as were some Commission departments such as research, international cooperation and development, environment, and employment.

Despite this, the organization unearthed 24 meetings between lobbyists and DG TAXUD (the taxation and customs union department); seven meetings with DG TRADE; five meetings with DG AGRI; and over 300 pieces of correspondence such as emails — all since 2017.

The documents show that “tobacco industry lobbying has focused on three main priorities: Delaying a revision of EU tobacco tax law, influencing EU trade negotiations with Latin America and other countries, and … shaping the EUs new track and trace system for cigarettes,” the report said.

CEOs Hoedeman said that when the TPD was being revised in 2013-14, a number of tobacco lobbying scandals came to light, showing the industrys determination to influence legislation.

“The tobacco industry seems to have regained self-confidence, and the Commission seems not to have learned anything from this episode,” Hoedeman said.

Disputed conclusions

The tobacco lobby has countered that its been complying with transparency provisions.

Andrew Cave, communications chief of Philip Morris International, insisted his company has “taken action to comply” with the directive since its revision in 2014.

“Together with other economic operators in the tobacco industry, we were invited by DG SANTE … to participate in an evaluation process of the implementation and practical application of the [directive], all of which was transparent,” Cave added.

Meanwhile, the European Smoking Tobacco Association (ESTA) told POLITICO it believes the Commission is already “sufficiently transparent,” and that “excessive” public pressure, including allegations of the industrys influence, can undermine “effective communication.”

To date, the Commission has signed up to the World Health Organizations Framework Convention on Tobacco Control | Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP via Getty Images

The transparency must cut in both directions, argues Guillaume Périgois, director of Forest EU, an industry-funded group representing smokers. He notes that there are 24 different anti-smoking organizations that operate in Brussels.

“These organizations are staffed with 94 lobbyists and have a self-declared lobbying budget of between €5 [million] and €6 million,” he added. “Far from David versus Goliath, its Goliath versus Goliath.”

In 2016, €6 million was given to these organizations from the Commission, he noted. That kind of money “doesnt promote transparent policymaking,” he added.

“You dont have to like smoking to see theres a problem with the European Commission giving taxpayers money to NGOs who then use that money to lobby the Commission,” he argued.

The European Commission did not respond to POLITICOs inquiries about the report.

Turning a new leaf

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