Saturday

20th Jan 2018

Break-in at anti-tobbaco NGOs in EU capital

  • Place du Luxembourg, beside the European Parliament - the Rue de Treves is a stone's throw away (Photo: FallacyFilms)

Three anti-tobacco NGOs in Brussels were burgled on Thursday (18 October) in what staff fear could have been a tobacco industry attack.

The break-in took place in the small hours at 49-51 Rue de Treves, an eight-floor building in the EU quarter.

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The intruders stole two laptops, some cash and personal items from the office of the European Public Health Alliance (Epha). They also rifled through electronic and paper files, including personal data.

They stole five laptops and paper documents from another office shared by the European Respiratory Society (ERS) and the Smoke Free Partnership (SFP). The files contain what the ERS described as "confidential" information on its work on a new EU tobacco law.

None of the groups publicly blamed tobacco firms for the crime.

But Epha said in a statement "this was not opportunistic, but a professional and well-equipped team."

ERS noted that the thieves disabled outside alarm sensors and evaded internal motion detectors in what looks like "a well-planned, researched and targeted" operation.

A contact at Epha told EUobserver: "It's like an American b-movie."

For his part, Luk Joossens, a Belgian expert at the Association of European Cancer Leagues, a cancer-prevention NGO, was more outspoken.

"For me, it's 100 percent [tobacco] industry-commissioned," he said.

He noted that Epha, ERS and SFP have made the most noise about a recent scandal involving EU health commissioner John Dalli.

Dalli lost his job earlier this week over allegations of misconduct in a tobacco lobbying case.

He had just drafted a tough new EU tobacco-control bill.

But the European Commission has put his work on ice due to the affair in what the campaigners say is playing into industry's hands.

"They wanted to see what information they [the NGOs] have and to frighten people," Joossens told EUobserver.

He added that tobacco firms have a bad track record in Belgium.

Joossens himself was targeted for a bribery attempt back in 1989, when he worked as an expert for the commission.

The case made the New York Times after an industry whistleblower exposed it three years later.

A contact at one major tobacco firm told this website that Joossens' theory on the burglary is "completely outlandish ... I've never even heard of anybody in the industry doing something like that."

Wenke Roggen, a spokesman for the Belgian prosecutor, also said there is nothing special about the incident at first glance.

"They entered by forcing a window. Forensic officers are making checks. But at this moment we don't have any elements which point in this direction [of industrial espionage]," he noted.

EU commissioner pleads innocence

The EU health commissioner at the centre of a tobacco lobbying scandal has spoken out to newspapers and on TV to protest his innocence.

Rights NGOs face fresh threats in EU

While ongoing crackdowns in Poland and Hungary have put the spotlight on rights groups, NGOs are now under new political and financial pressure across the EU, the Fundamental Rights Agency said.

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