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27th Sep 2020

EU tobacco lobbying is 'David vs. Goliath'

  • Snus: to stay off the EU market despite heavy lobbying, Borg said (Photo: Ole C Eid)

The tobacco industry in Brussels spends over €5 million a year and employs around around 100 full-time lobbyists to influence EU legislation, says an anti-smoking advocacy group.

“These figures are only the tip of the iceberg,” said Forence Berteletti Kemp, director of the Brussels-based advocacy group Smoke Free Partnership, on Monday (25 February), at a European parliament hearing on tobacco products.

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Kemp noted that by comparison there is only a handful of anti-smoking lobbyists with only a fraction of the budget.

“We, in the Smoke Free Partnership, are only two people working,” Kemp told euro-deputies, pro-tobacco representatives, and EU health commissioner Tonio Borg.

Kemp likened the anti- and pro-tobacco lobbying campaign in Brussels to David versus Goliath.

“Despite the size, David won,” Kemp said in reference to the commission’s latest draft legislation to promote larger health warnings on cigarette packages and place a ban on some tobacco flavours.

Irish health minister James Reilly, who was also present, said public health care for tobacco-related illnesses in Europe costs over €23 billion annually. “And that’s before you count the costs of human misery,” said Reilly.

An estimated 700,000 people in Europe die from smoking-related diseases each year.

The Brussels executive is banned from meeting tobacco companies in secret and must inform the public about the addictive and harmful nature of tobacco products.

But critics say transparency issues remain.

Kemp pointed out that representatives from a tobacco giant were given an audience last year with cabinet members of EU commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso.

The industry also met with top officials in the secretariat general as well as others in the commission's directorate for health and consumer affairs. The meetings were disclosed only after pro-transparency groups made formal access to document requests.

“When we asked to get a meeting on the TPD [tobacco productive directive], we were referred back to the health commissioner. So who has been given fair access at the highest level and who has not?” said Kemp.

Some of the meetings were also held with former health commissioner John Dalli who was later fired for allegedly accepting a bribe to lift an EU-wide marketing and sale ban on Swedish tobacco snus.

The mouth tobacco manufacturer Swedish Match says it was being pressured to hand out cash to a Dalli middleman to set up a meeting with the commissioner. Dalli denies the allegations and maintains his innocence.

Meanwhile, Borg told the deputies the commission has no intention to lift the ban on snus.

“Snus is addictive, has adverse health affects, and is increasingly sold in Sweden in packages and flavours targeting young people,” said the commissioner.

Pro-tobacco representative Michiel Reerink, who is a board member of the Confederation of European Community Cigarette Manufacturers (CECCM), said Borg’s tobacco directive would introduce market barriers, increase the regulatory burden and encourage contraband.

“This proposal will not achieve its state objectives,” said Reerink.

Reerink said there is no evidence to support the idea that larger graphic warnings are likely to reduce smoking.

“This would be a huge business opportunity for smugglers and contraband,” said Reerink, noting that the EU-based industry employs 1.5 million people.

Italian MEP Oreste Rossi of the eurosceptic EDF group backed his comments. Rossi said the EU directive would promote illegal cigarette trafficking and diminish an important source of tax revenue for member states.

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