Belgian EU Presidency sounding alarm on urgently-needed tobacco control legislation

In an effort to confront the bloc’s pressing public health threats, Belgium’s EU Council Presidency convened a meeting of the bloc’s health ministers on 23 and 24 April, with non-communicable diseases (NCDs) prevention topping the agenda.

Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan (EBCP) –  the centrepiece of the Commission’s anti-NCD agenda –  featured prominently in discussions as its key legislative initiatives to tackle primary risk factors, such as smoking, remain concerningly unrealised as the EU term draws to a close.

The EBCP’s headline commitment to deliver a ‘Tobacco-Free Generation’ by 2040 appears increasingly out of reach, with Belgian Health Minister Frank Vandenbroucke recently highlighting how crucial tobacco control policies have “been undermined by powerful industry interests at the cost of Europeans’ health.”

Looking ahead to the next political cycle, EU policymakers must address Big Tobacco’s lobbying offensive head on to achieve the bloc’s smoke-free ambitions, notably by following the recommendations of a newly-published White Paper produced by an MEP working group in collaboration with leading academics in the tobacco control field and NGO coalitions.

EU failing to advance on critical issue

As SmokeFree Partnership (SFP) director and White Paper contributor Lilia Olefir has rightly asserted, “the von der Leyen Commission failed to deliver on tobacco control,” with “not a single piece of legislation…published since 2019” despite its lofty promises. According to Olefir, non-existent progress on the crucial revisions of the EU’s Tobacco Products Directive (TPD) and Tobacco Taxation Directive (TTD) reflects the tobacco industry’s delaying tactics.

The European Public Health Alliance (EPHA) echoed this sentiment in a joint statement on 22 April, calling on Brussels policymakers to urgently progress these public health policies to address the 700,000 preventable deaths caused by smoking in Europe every year – the continent’s top driver of premature mortality.

The tobacco industry continues to avoid its responsibilities for this public health plague, with the World Health Organization (WHO) recently underscoring how the industry’s commercial interests “have been a longstanding issue delaying NCD prevention policies.” Any effective solution, the WHO further maintains, must mobilise “multi-country partnerships” involving “civil society, academia and other key stakeholders” to protect EU public health policies.

Preparing the counteroffensive

Encouragingly, the European Parliament’s Working Group on Tobacco Products has adopted precisely this cross-sector partnership approach in preparing its new White Paper exposing the tobacco industry’s regulatory powerplays in Brussels. Starting in 2020, French MEPs Anne-Sophie Pelletier, Pierre Larrouturou and the late Michèle Rivasi convened Europe’s leading tobacco control experts for a series of policy roundtables, whose conclusions have formed the basis of the White Paper which the group unveiled at an EP event on 11 April.

Key civil society participants, including the University of Bath’s Tobacco Control Research Group (TCRG), the French Alliance Against Tobacco (ACT) and the aforementioned SmokeFree Partnership, have long exposed the tobacco industry’s covert lobbying and manipulation of policies to advance their business interests at the expense of public health.

Their insights have heavily informed the White Paper’s diagnosis of the problem— as well as its prescription for bringing the EU’s tobacco control system in line with the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC).

Parallel trade in tobacco control crosshairs

As the White Paper showcases, Big Tobacco’s multi-faceted manipulation of Europe’s parallel cigarette trade remains at the core of its strategy to boost profits while blocking more ambitious EU regulation. Every year, Big Tobacco invests millions in the KPMG report on parallel tobacco to generate ammunition for its misleading lobbying efforts, with the study’s flawed scientific basis, reflected by its ever-growing exaggeration of the parallel trade’s size and nature, decried by tobacco control NGOs such as French ACT member, Comité National Contre le Tabagisme (CNCT).

Meanwhile, the White Paper’s authors emphasise the tobacco industry’s intentional contribution to the parallel trade, which includes oversupplying small countries with weak cigarette excise taxes to indirectly feed the parallel trade in high-tax, heavy-smoking countries like France. For example, the industry provided France’s neighbour Luxembourg with three billion cigarettes in 2021 despite its annual domestic consumption of 600 million, enabling manufacturers to circumvent strong taxation regimes by attracting smokers with cheaper product, thus contributing to persistently-high smoking rates in many EU member-states.

Industry exploiting Commission’s transparency failures

Beyond taxation, the tobacco industry has equally targeted the EU’s track and trace system, which should be one if its primary tools to tackle the parallel trade. The White Paper notably refers to TCRG researcher Allen Gallagher’s study on the industry’s extensive lobbying influence during the track and trace system’s development, resulting in the Commission awarding Dentsu Tracking the contract without a transparent tender process.

Dentsu has rightly come under fire for its tobacco industry links in total violation of the WHO FCTC’s ITP Protocol, with its “dubious connections” to Blue Infinity and the PMI-developed Codentify track and trace system repeatedly highlighted by the Working Group’s lead MEPs. What EU Ombudsman Emily O’ Reilly has deemed as the Commission’s “maladministration” in regards to the transparency of its tobacco lobby dealings has created a conducive revolving-door environment that Dentsu apparently capitalised on to gain control of EU track and trace and advance the industry’s interests.

This was reinforced in a recent press release issued by Anne-Sophie Pelletier, where she decried persistent ethics violations by the tobacco industry and its allies, highlighting Dentsu’s belated registration on the Transparency Register—Pelletier explained that she “sees this late and under-pressure registration as an acknowledgement by Dentsu Tracking of violating transparency and ethical rules”—and pointing to the conflict of interest arising from Dentsu’s employment of former Commission official Jan Hoffmann.

Indeed, the late MEP Michèle Rivasi was quick to sound the alarm on the scandal in which former Commission official Jan Hoffman, who had worked in the institution on files including tobacco traceability, suspiciously joined Dentsu shortly after the company’s selection as the EU’s main track and trace operator.

 Drawing line in the sand

As Rivasi asserts in the White Paper, Dentsu’s track and trace solution been an abject “failure” as “there is no will for an independent traceability system” in Europe. With industry-fuelled delays putting the stagnating Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan under the spotlight during Belgium’s EU Presidency, MEPs must waste no time after June’s European elections in increasing pressure on the Commission to weed out the industry’s undue influence over its tobacco control agenda.

In light of the White Paper’s key recommendations, EU policymakers should seize the opportunity presented by the TPD-TTD revision process to embed WHO FCTC-compliant measures, such as implementing a new, fully-independent track and track system, establishing domestic cigarette quotas and increasing minimum tax levels across the EU.

If Brussels is serious about reaching its “Tobacco-Free” 2040 ambitions and putting citizens’ health above Big Tobacco’s commercial interests, it must urgently launch this fight against the parallel trade.

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Belgian EU Presidency sounding alarm on urgently-needed tobacco control legislation