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30th Mar 2020

EU freezes tobacco law after lobbying scandal

  • Dalli says he was sacked. The commission says he resigned (Photo: EUobserver)

The European Commission has frozen work on its new anti-tobacco law, despite warnings it is falling into a tobacco industry trap.

Spokeswoman Pia Ahrenkilde-Hansen said on Wednesday (17 October) that internal talks on the law - "inter-service consultations," the final step before decision-making - due to start next month will not take place.

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She noted that: "Any proposal to revise the tobacco legislation will be made by the next commissioner in charge of the portfolio ... The review of this complex body of legislation will be taken forward when we have a new commissioner for health and consumer policy."

She declined to say whether work will begin from scratch or pick up where former health commissioner John Dalli broke off.

She added it could take until Christmas at least to replace him due to the ins-and-outs of the procedure, which includes a candidate hearing in the European Parliament.

Dalli lost his post on Tuesday in controversial circumstances.

The commission says he resigned after his boss, Jose Manuel Barroso, showed him a report from the EU's anti-fraud office, Olaf, saying he is guilty of improper conduct in a tobacco lobbying case.

Dalli says he was sacked and that the whole affair is designed to derail the law.

"I was asked for my resignation," he told New Europe, an online newspaper, in an interview also on Wednesday.

He said the bill - which was to propose putting pictures of smoking-related diseases on 75 percent of the surface of cigarette packs, among other measures - has been ready to go into inter-service talks since August. But commission civil service chief Catherine Day twice postponed the move already.

"Now it is probable to me there will be no such directive during this commission ... [which] is a big gain for the tobacco industry," he added.

For his part, Olaf head Giovanni Kessler, a former Italian prosecutor, told press in Brussels the same day he had examined and discounted the possibility that his service is being manipulated.

The story revolves around Swedish Match, a producer of mouth-tobacco, and a Maltese businessman who knows Dalli.

Kessler said lobbyists working for Swedish Match met with the businessman twice, at which point he requested a "big" sum of money to get Dalli to alter the bill and Swedish Match reported it to the commission.

He added that Dalli "was aware of someone close to him repeatedly asking for money to change the policy of the commission ... he was aware of it and he didn't do anything to stop it, to prevent it or to report it."

The Olaf chief called it a "classic" case of normal lobbying "polluted" by corruption.

But Swedish Match's role in the story might be more complicated than that.

Maltese media on Wednesday published an email showing that Estoc, a Brussels-based lobby group which represents the Swedish firm, itself requested the Maltese businessman to set up a meeting with Dalli in return for a fee.

It made the request in March this year, two months before Swedish Match complained to the commission that the Dalli middleman is trying to squeeze it for money.

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