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Big Tobacco Lobby in Europe

EU Ombudswoman takes on industry practices

Redazione di TheBlackCoffee

Only a few days remain for the European Commission to address the tobacco lobby-related concerns recently raised by the EU Ombudsman in her recent preliminary findings. The industry is heavily represented in Brussels, but there is not sufficient transparency on its interactions with policy-makers.

The murky and manipulative relationship between the international tobacco lobby in Brussels mirrors that of the fossil fuel industry or the automotive sector. A lack of adequate transparency characterises these relations amidst the EU’s decades-long unsuccessful efforts to bring the tobacco deals to daylight.

The topic remains very relevant: as of June 2023, 112 million Europeans are smoking – which means 26 percent of the overall population and 29 percent of Europeans aged between 15 and 25. These are high values in global comparison. Furthermore, tobacco consumption is estimated to be responsible for 700,000 deaths in the EU every year, making it the single largest avoidable health risk threatening Europeans.

On the surface, EU countries are exemplary when it comes to tobacco control. Indoor smoking is banned in most places, and advertisement of tobacco products is illegal in most member states. Unappealing packages for tobacco products are now a standard in most countries, and bans on the sale of cigarettes to minors have been in place for decades in all member states – and the list goes on.

After the EU Ombudswoman – the watchdog body defending European citizens’ rights – presented its preliminary findings on the European Commission’s interactions with the tobacco lobby in mid-April 2023, it gave the Commission three months to reply. This equals mid-July. In the meantime, member states’ representatives formed with the Commission an Expert Group on Tobacco Policy. The group is meant to review the EU’s progress under the 2009 Council Recommendation on Smoke-free Environments.

What worries the Ombudsman?

In her letter to the European Commission, Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly emphasises that the EU is bound by international law. Specific passages on industry lobbying in the World Health Organisation’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC) are supposed to guide the EU institutions and agencies. In particular, interactions between the European Commission and the tobacco lobby are required to be transparent.

The preliminary findings of the Ombudsman are based on inspected documents held by the Commission concerning all interactions with tobacco interest representatives in 2020 and 2021, including documents acquired through freedom of information requests sent to the European Commission.

Back in 2016, the EU Ombudsman already looked at the application of the proactive transparency policy of the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Health and Food Safety (DG SANTE) across all the Commission’s units. DG SANTE’s policy requires the online publication of all the meetings staff have with tobacco industry representatives, including the length of the meetings, irrespective of the seniority of the official concerned.

However, only DG TAXUD has taken on this practice, even though official EU records indicate at least nine other meetings between the Commission’s directorate-generals (DGs) or other EU agencies and tobacco industry representatives during the period under review. They involved officials from the Commission’s DGs on Agriculture and Rural Development, Climate Action, Environment, Financial Stability, Financial Services and Capital Markets Union, Internal Market and Industry, Mobility and Transport, Neighbourhood and Enlargement, and Trade, as well as the European Anti-Fraud Office.

A lasting romance between the EU and the tobacco industry

The worryingly close ties between the EU’s experts and decision-makers with tobacco companies date back to at least the 1990s. In 1996, a group of MEPs was accused of accepting money from the industry to weaken anti-cigarette legislation: this was the scandal that first led to the creation of an EU lobby register.

One of the most noticeable incidents was the Dalli-gate in 2012, where the then EU Health Commissioner John Dalli was forced to resign because of an alleged bribery attempt of a Maltese lobbyist by a Maltese contractor in order to influence the commissioner over the then-ongoing smoke-free tobacco regulation. Other scandals led to an outcry in 2014, when the New York Times broke the Philip Morris International “smoke rooms” scandal around the adoption of the EU Tobacco Products Directive.

According to the Ombudsman’s letter, some information about meetings have been made public in recent years. As opposed to lower-level meetings, details of higher-level meetings have not been proactively published however. Tobacco lobby-related public data requests (FOI) filed by the Ombudsman’s office to the European Commission show a similarly mixed picture. Of the 19 FOIs filed over the reviewed two years, a dozen were fulfilled. In the other cases, the Commission responded that it had failed to identify documents on the issue, thereby implicitly acknowledging that far from all meetings with tobacco lobbyists were adequately documented.

Big business – large lobby

The EU’s tobacco industry is highly concentrated, dominated by the trio of Philip Morris International (38%), Imperial Brands (23%), and British American Tobacco (20%). Japan Tobacco International (12%) and the Scandinavian Tobacco Group (5%) take a large share of the remaining fifth of the market, leaving just under two percent to other players. A concentrated market makes it easier to unite and represent interests. Publicly available data shows that the tobacco industry spent more than €7.6 million on lobbying in Brussels in 2019 alone, according to the EU Transparency Register.

A 2021 report by the NGO Corporate Observatory Europe, together with the European Public Health Alliance, shows some disillusioning findings. Commonly used tactics in tobacco lobbying manoeuvres include spreading falsehoods, delaying regulatory intent, playing the victim, protesting against regulators, exploiting third countries, deploying new technologies, and pitting member states against each other in tobacco negotiations.

Olivier Hoedeman, a researcher at Corporate Europe Observatory, told EUrologus that the industry has increased its spending in Brussels by a third since 2016, spending between €10 million and €13 million a year to make its case and now employs about 160 people in the EU’s capital. According to him, meetings between tobacco industry representatives and EU legislators should be strictly limited, and meeting reports should be proactively published.

Hoedeman is confident that, especially in the wake of the Qatar-gate scandal, the Commission will announce a tightening of lobby reporting rules. Based on the preliminary views of the Ombudsman, a few changes are likely being implemented. Given the cross-institutional nature of tobacco regulation aspects, the Commission will have to apply transparency rules across its various working units. There are obvious reasons to make record-keeping and note-taking mandatory for all tobacco lobby meetings. Lastly, there might be a clause to pre-assess the necessity of meetings requested by the tobacco interest representatives, so as to avoid any unnecessary interactions.

Health Statistics

The proportion of smokers fell from 32 percent in 2006 to 25 percent in 2020 on average in the EU countries, according to Eurostat data. The Netherlands (-17%), Denmark (-16%), and Estonia (-15%) have cut down smoking the most, while Bulgaria (+2%) and the Czech Republic (+1%) have witnessed a slight increase. On the other hand, the market for heated tobacco products, smokeless tobacco products, and e-cigarettes has been expanding rapidly. The market size of heated tobacco sales increased from less than €1 billion in 2018 to €19.7 billions in 2020. Last year the Commission announced its intention to ban the sale of all flavoured, heated tobacco products. This reinforces the EU’s target of reducing the proportion of smokers in Europe to below 5 percent by 2040

Original font: EDJNet -The European Data Journalism Network /György Folk – EUrologus (CC BY 4.0)

Saturday, 15 July 2023 – n°28/2023

On the cover: photo by ©Serhii Yevdokymov/Shutterstock

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