Thursday

17th Jan 2019

ECJ ruling set to end 10-year 'mouth tobacco' lobbying saga

  • Maltese commissioner, John Dalli, was fired by his boss, Jose Manual Barroso, which led to an acrimonious court case in Luxembourg. (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

Tobacco firm Swedish Match appears increasingly unlikely to be permitted to sell its 'snus' mouth tobacco product across the EU any time soon.

Almost ten years after it had sought out Malta's then European Commissioner for health to lift the ban, it suffered another blow on 12 April in its ongoing ambition to see snus on store shelves in Italy, Germany and elsewhere.

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  • The sale of snus remains banned throughout the EU, except in Sweden. (Photo: Ole C Eid)

Under current EU rules, snus can only be sold in Sweden.

The Swedish firm walked away once again disappointed when a Danish advocate general at the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg said its product remains a health hazard.

While the opinion by the Danish advocate general is not binding, it is often seen as a harbinger for the final verdict issued by the court judges later on.

Swedish Match general counsel Marie-Louise Heiman said in a statement, cited by Reuters, that they now "hope that the court will come to a different conclusion in its final ruling." It is unclear when the final ruling will take place.

The company had argued in British courts that a 2014 EU directive on tobacco was disproportionate, given the latest scientific research on snus.

The British High Court then referred the case to Luxembourg for the European judges to decide if the snus prohibition in the EU directive is indeed still valid.

Swedish Match's case against the directive was the latest episode in the company's long fight against the snus ban, a saga which led to one of the EU institutions' most prominent scandals.

The firm had alerted a former EU commission official turned lawyer of an attempted bribe, which then triggered an EU-anti fraud Olaf probe into Malta's European commissioner for health.

Backstory

The saga, steeped in political intrigue and 'Big Tobacco' lobbying, has its roots at the five-star Kempinski Hotel on the Maltese island of Gozo, and a small diner that serves all day €10 English breakfast in St Julian's Bay, and a reach that spread all the way to the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg.

The affair kicked off almost ten years ago when John Dalli, the European commissioner for health, was alleged to have solicited bribes from Swedish Match and the European smokeless tobacco council (Estoc), an umbrella organisation, to lift the ban on snus.

Dalli had been preparing the new, stronger 2014 EU anti-tobacco reforms - as lobbyists descended en masse to get the ban removed and water down the proposals.

The Maltese commissioner maintained his innocence of any wrongdoing, and pointed to a larger tobacco plot to oust him given his proposed laws cracking down on smoking.

However, Dalli was fired from the European Commission by his boss, Jose Manual Barroso, which led to an acrimonious court case in Luxembourg.

At the time, Dalli's friend and St Julian's Bay restaurant owner Silvio Zammit was already selling snus out of his small diner to all the Swedes working in Malta. The island nation had become a magnet for the Swedish online gambling industry given its generous tax system, warm climate, and deep blue Mediterranean waters.

Zammit had his own ambitions. A former deputy mayor and a part-time circus impresario, he had also run a small gambling agency but now saw an opportunity to cash in big time. It was at a corner table in his restaurant that Zammit offered to set up a meeting between Swedish Match and John Dalli for a €60m fee.

When EUobserver met Zammit at this restaurant years later in 2014, the 50-year old was facing a ten year prison sentence for his part in the affair.

Zammit had his first foray into the snus business after taking his friend on a budget holiday trip to Stockholm, where the two were treated to a lunch and tour of the city by Estoc reps.

The EU's anti-fraud office, Olaf, later caught wind of the alleged bribe attempt and launched a probe that rapidly led to Dalli being booted out of the Commission.

Fearing arrest, Dalli disappeared but later turned up in Malta after prime minister Joseph Muscat, his political ally, sacked a police commissioner who had wanted him arraigned. Muscat then appointed Dalli as a health consultant.

But the story did not end there as Belgian prosecutors began to probe Olaf, given that its secretary-general, Giovanni Kessler, was said to have wire-tapped a Zammit phone call.

That revelation caused an uproar among MEPs at the European parliament.

Kessler eventually lost his immunity because of the wire-tapping charges, exposing him to arrest and raids by the Belgian police.

He also threatened to sue the European commission for having stripped him of immunity and later left Brussels to pursue a new career in Rome.

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