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28th Sep 2020

Tobacco lobbying warped EU law, British scientists 'prove'

  • The industry employs "at least" 80 people in Brussels, NGOs say (Photo: europarl.europa.eu)

Industry lobbying saw EU institutions water down a landmark tobacco law between 2009 and 2014, a new study by British scientists has found.

The survey, published in Tobacco Control, an offshoot of the British Medical Journal, last week, is the first to use “quantitative text analysis” - a method which counts the evolution of vocabulary in EU legal texts - to “prove” the impact of industry efforts.

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Noting that “the tobacco industry has been known for emphasising the economic costs of increasing regulation, while downplaying health benefits”, it traced the frequency of pro-industry words (such as “economy”) versus public interest vocabulary (such as “health” or “warn”) in three EU texts.

The papers include the European Commission’s public consultation document of 2010; its draft bill of 2012; and the final law adopted by the European Parliament and EU states in March this year.

“Over time the word root ‘health’ decreased from 1.50 percent of total words per document in the initial commission proposal, to 1.21 percent of total words in the final approved legislation”, it said.

It observed a “similar pattern” with the word “warn”, but “the opposite pattern occurred for finance language, such as the [word] root ‘econom’.”

“The EU legislation shifted significantly towards the tobacco industry’s position and that of several other stakeholders, including retailers, who were associated with the industry’s position”, the researchers, from Oxford University, the University of Bath, the UK Centre for Tobacco and Alcohol Studies, and the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said.

They noted that the “significant textual shifts correspond to substantial policy changes”.

“At the commission stage, proposals for plain packaging and limitations on point of sale displays were removed. At the parliament and the council stage of the process, the size of pictorial health warnings was reduced from 75 percent to 65 percent of carton size and the ban on slim cigarettes was rejected. Additionally, the parliament delayed for five years the proposed ban on menthol-flavoured cigarettes, which would have been a major problem for the industry’s recruitment of young smokers”.

The researchers noted the tobacco bill saw an “unprecedented” level of lobbying, with the commission’s public consultation exercise, for instance, receiving more than 85,000 submissions “many of which were later found to be [pro-industry] duplicates”.

They said the fall from grace of former EU health commissioner, John Dalli, in a tobacco lobbying scandal in 2012, helped industry to delay the law.

They also noted that - in “a remarkable twist” - someone burgled and stole documents from pro-health NGOs in Brussels at the same time.

A Brussels-based NGO, Corporate Europe Observatory, and some MEPs previously raised the alarm on industry activity in the EU capital during commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso’s watch.

Their digging unearthed that Barroso’s officials held 14 "undisclosed" meetings with industry lobbyists in 2011 and 2012; that the industry employs "at least" 80 people in Brussels; and that it spends "at least" €5 million a year to bend EU legislation.

They also noted that one tobacco firm, Philip Morris, met “at least once” with 233 individual MEPs in the run-up to the parliament vote and that one MEP was contacted more than 40 times by lobbyists in a six-month period.

Referring to the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, a set of World Health Orgnisation guidelines on how to treat tobacco lobbyists, the British researchers said “[EU] policy making should be protected from industry, so evidence suggesting industry influence on EU legislation is of concern”.

“Additional governance strategies are needed to prevent undue influence of the tobacco industry on EU policy making”.

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