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29th Jun 2022

Ombudsman launches probe into Commission tobacco lobbying

  • Currently, nearly 20 percent of the EU population aged 15 or over smoke cigarettes daily (Photo: European Parliament)
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The EU Ombudsman has launched an inquiry to assess if the European Commission complies with transparency obligations over tobacco lobbying – ahead of upcoming revisions of rules targeting tobacco consumption.

Emily O'Reilly, who investigates maladministration in the EU institutions, has asked the EU executive to provide all documents concerning meetings with tobacco lobbyists in 2020 and 2021 – including those requested under access to documents procedures.

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In this new inquiry, launched by the ombudsman on her own initiative rather than following complaints and announced on Tuesday (30 November), the EU watchdog regretted that the commission still does not proactively make public the meetings that happen below the level of directors-general, aside from those in the department for health (DG SANTE) and taxation (DG TAXUD).

"It is likely that any new legislative initiatives to curb tobacco consumption, will be challenged by tobacco interest representatives… [but] this practice does not facilitate full public scrutiny of the commission's interaction with the tobacco industry," she argued in a letter to commission president Ursula von der Leyen.

Under the World Health Organization's Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), the commission committed to preventing the tobacco lobbyists from undermining public health policies.

This global treaty, which the EU signed in 2003, requires parties "to ensure that any interaction with the tobacco industry on matters related to tobacco control or public health is accountable and transparent".

However, transparency obligations for EU officials meeting tobacco representatives have improved little during the last years – mainly because the commission has argued in previous occasion that it does meet its obligations under the FCTC.

Yet, international guidelines clearly state that "all branches of government" come within the scope of the FCTC.

A decade to implement rules?

The new investigation is a follow up to previous initiatives in this area.

The EU ombudsman previously slammed the Barroso Commission, marred by the so-called 'Dalligate' scandal, for not being transparent enough about its meetings with the tobacco industry.

The then EU health commissioner John Dalli was forced to resign after being subjected to an investigation from OLAF, the EU's anti-fraud office, over bribery allegations made by a tobacco firm.

Shortly after, in 2016, the EU's watchdog regretted that the former commission, led by Jean-Claude Juncker, refused to make its dealings with the tobacco industry more transparent, arguing that Brussels had missed an opportunity to show global leadership in tobacco lobbying.

Earlier this year, O'Reilly pointed out "the sophisticated and intricate tactics used by the tobacco industry" and the importance of upholding the highest standards of the FCTC – while considering the risks of revolving cases in the controversial sector.

Such is the case with the German former commissioner Guenther Oettinger, who joined a consultancy firm whose biggest EU lobbying client is tobacco giant Philip Morris in 2020.

Tobacco lobbying expected to increase

Under the EU's Beating Cancer Plan, the EU Commission wants to achieve a "tobacco-free generation" - aiming to have less than five percent of the population using tobacco by 2040.

However, measures targeting tobacco consumption will likely be subject to lobbying from the industry.

According to Olivier Hoedeman from Corporate Europe Observatory, the ombudsman's new inquiry is "very timely".

"With new tobacco control measures expected in 2022, getting serious about UN tobacco treaty obligations and preventing tobacco industry interference is a matter of urgency," he told EUobserver.

Previous studies have shown how tobacco companies have been successfully influencing EU policies, such as the 2014 Tobacco Products Directive - considered one of the most-lobbied files in the history of the EU institutions.

Currently, nearly 20 percent of the EU population aged 15 or over smoke cigarettes daily.

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Some consultancies, such as Brunswick or Kreab, were already refusing Russian clients well before the invasion in late February. Law firm Covington represented the Ukrainian government on a pro-bono basis in its case against Russia at the Hague this week.

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