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22nd Jul 2018

Interview

EU 'will not compromise on health' in trade negotiations

  • The commission estimates that the 2016 tobacco directive will lead to a two-percent drop in tobacco use over five years (Photo: lanier67)

EU health commissioner Vytenis Andruikaitis has said he intends to help member states face the challenges of chronic diseases.

The commissioner notes that tackling obesity, alcohol and tobacco, Europe needs “effective and sustainable” health systems.

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  • EU health commission Vytenis Andriukaitis is promising not to compromise on health issues in the EU-US free-trade agreement (Photo: © European Union 2014 - European Parliament)

The EU cannot directly legislate in national healthcare issues directly but it can approach the issue in a roundabout way.

Andruikaitis, himself a doctor, said he will work with his economic and social affairs colleagues to tackle both the fiscal sustainability of health systems as well as modernising social protection systems.

“I will also look at the recommendations of the Chronic Diseases summit last year with a view of strengthening effectiveness, increasing accessibility and improving resilience of health systems, to make them better able to adapt effectively to the changing picture of healthcare caused also by the increase of chronic diseases,” he told this website.

Andriukaitis said he would push for EU funds, such as the European Investment and Structural funds, to be channelled towards improving disease prevention and health promotion.

Touching on the sensitive issue of TTIP – the EU-US free-trade deal currently being negotiated – the commissioner said Brussels “will not compromise on health protection and safety”.

His pledge comes amid fears that a deal will come at the cost of public health, particularly in areas such as environmental protection, tobacco and alcohol policies and food labelling, which are all important for combating the risk factors for chronic diseases.

Tobacco and endocrine disruptors

Smoking and other forms of tobacco consumption are considered the single most important cause of preventable morbidity and premature mortality worldwide.

In Europe tobacco use remains the number one risk factor despite important progress in reducing the number of smokers in a large number of European countries.

The main provisions of the recently-agreed tobacco directive will begin to be applied from May 2016. They include the obligation to have a large picture and text health warnings for cigarette and roll-your-own tobacco packs.

The commission estimates that the directive will lead to a two-percent drop in tobacco use over a period of five years.

“This is roughly equivalent to 2.4 million fewer smokers in the EU – a life-changing figure in every sense,” said Andriukaitis.

He said he was “committed” to making sure that governments transform the legislation on time.

He added that the commission will also adopt a number of implementing measures to clarify the rules.

“These measures will focus on labelling and packaging, ingredients control, electronic cigarettes and the fight against illicit/non-compliant products.”

Tobacco giant Phillip Morris recently brought a case to the EU court of justice arguing that the new law breaches the EU right to free movement of goods – but Andriukaitis dismissed the accusation saying that the tobacco directive “fully honours the EU treaties”.

Endocrine disruptors

Endocrine disruptors - chemicals that, at certain doses, can interfere with the endocrine (or hormone) system in mammals - are another health hazard that are increasingly being linked to chronic diseases.

While the EU Commission has established temporary criteria to determine whether chemicals and everyday pollutants like biocides are endocrine disruptors, several EU states are concerned that more explicit criteria have not yet been put in place.

A court action against the European Commission is being taken by several member states for failing to introduce criteria for endocrine-disrupting chemicals in the biocides products regulation by December 2013.

The commissioner said his institution is currently looking into how to define criteria for the identification of endocrine disruptors.

“The impact of all options will be assessed, considering potential socio-economic effects, such as those on health, environment, agriculture and trade,” he said.

Asked about lobbying pressure from chemical and tobacco companies, Andriukaitis said he will continue his department’s practice of publishing the minutes of meetings with industry.

“This is a practice which we fully intend to continue and which I - as well as my Cabinet - will adhere to.”

The worrying state of Europe's lungs

One of the most frequent chronic diseases in Europe is estimated to take the life of over 250 people worldwide every hour. Tobacco is the direct cause for most cases.

WHO: Europeans 'alarmingly' obese

The United Nations health agency estimated that 58.6 percent of Europeans are overweight, and 23 percent suffer from obesity.

Stakeholder

The EU cannot let its patients down

Public health is being pushed into the background at EU level, while a cooperative and patient-centred approach could help to achieve a fairer and better healthcare system for European citizens.

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