Commission health chief Vytenis Andriukaitis wants the European Commission to be more transparent when it comes to tobacco lobbying and warned that EU institutions faced losing citizen’s trust if no action was taken.
While Andriukaitis’ DG Sante was proactive in releasing details of meetings with the tobacco industry when the EU’s new Tobacco Products Directive was negotiated, other DGs failed to disclose such meetings.
According to some, this lack of transparency breaches Article 5.3 of the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC).
The convention says that parties are obliged to protect public health policies from commercial or other vested interests of the tobacco industry.
European Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly, who investigates complaints about maladministration in the EU institutions and bodies, organised an event in Brussels on Wednesday (27 April) to push for the other Commission DGs as well as other EU institutions to follow Andriukaitis’ lead.
Andriukaitis acknowledged that the Commission could be more transparent, but said that he sees “good attitudes” among his colleagues.
“DG Sante is very active in explaining rules and procedures at different inter-sectoral levels, to raise questions and in encouraging colleagues to follow these procedures,” he said.
“From my point of view, we must show absolutely show our engagement and our fight against tobacco lobbying. Or else citizens won’t believe in the EU institutions,” the Commissioner added.
Roberto Bertollini, the chief scientist and WHO representative to the EU stated that the European Commission had nothing to discuss with the tobacco industry.
“We have an industry which kills half of its users. Their products have no added value. We would like to see this tobacco lobbying finished,” he said.
Tobacco lobbying has played an important part of the transparency discussion related to the Commission over the past years.
In October 2012, the European Union’s top health official, John Dalli, resigned after an anti-fraud investigation connected him to an attempt to influence EU tobacco legislation.
A report from OLAF, the EU’s anti-fraud office, claimed that a Maltese lobbyist had approached the tobacco producer Swedish Match and proposed making use of his contacts with Dalli to fix the EU export ban on powder tobacco.
The report claimed that, while Dalli was not involved, he knew what was going on. Dalli rejected OLAF’s findings, denying that he was in any way aware of any of these events.
The new Commission led by Jean-Claude Juncker has taken steps to improve transparency, O’Reilly said.
But she was puzzled why meetings with tobacco lobbyists and other DGs were not disclosed, as publishing them online would not have added an extra layer of bureaucracy or burden for the administration.
Tobacco industry objections
The event caused controversy before it was held. Tobacco lobbyists complained they were excluded from being part of the panel.
Instead, the lobbyists showed up in great numbers in the audience, according to the list of participants.
Ronan Barry, of the Confederation of European Community Cigarette Manufacturers, argued that by not inviting the industry to be on the panel, the Ombudsman was excluding the industry from the public health debate.
“I’m aware that the tobacco industry is unhappy about not being represented on the panel today,” O’Reilly said.
“I can of course invite whoever I wish to take part in a seminar that I organise. But I did make a decision not to invite tobacco industry representatives.
“That is how I interpret my obligation under the convention. This is, however, a public event and I did not exclude any interest group from taking part,” she said.