The tobacco lobby is trying to water down the EU Tobacco Products Directive that was about to be proposed by former European Commissioner John Dalli before he resigned, one of Europe’s leading public health experts warned yesterday.
Martin McKee, professor of European public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said last month’s resignation of Mr Dalli as EU Health Commissioner and the subsequent burglary in Brussels of anti-tobacco and public health organisations had raised concerns among his peers.
“There is a strong suspicion of foul play (among the public health community)... particularly given that we have such a wealth of evidence of how the tobacco industry has worked in the past,” said Prof. McKee, citing the industry’s attempts to question evidence that second-hand smoke was damaging.
“The tobacco industry has a long history of distorting evidence, it does not have clean hands,” he said.
Prof. McKee is in Malta for the European Public Health Conference.
Following an investigation by the EU anti-fraud office OLAF, Mr Dalli was forced to resign his post on October 16, just six days before the directive was to be presented to the Commission.
It was alleged that a Maltese entrepreneur had asked a Swedish tobacco company for money to set up a meeting between them and Mr Dalli, with the possibility of influencing future legislation on tobacco products, and that the Commissioner was aware of these events. Mr Dalli denies the allegations.
Prof. McKee did not wish to comment on whether he thought Mr Dalli had been framed but he suspects that the tobacco industry was unhappy with the directive Mr Dalli was about to present.
“We know the (tobacco) industry got hold of a leaked copy and it was published in the German media.
“Our suspicion was that the industry believed they had already managed to water it (the directive) down and were very surprised to find out that it was so strong.
“Then I think the industry panicked, and what happened after that is a matter of conjecture,” Prof. McKee said.
With Tonio Borg, Malta’s nominated replacement for Mr Dalli, facing questions over an alleged bribe and his social conservative views, Prof. McKee said the EU should not wait for the new Commissioner to take up his role before pushing through the directive.
He pointed out that the directive had already passed all the necessary impact assessments and there was no need to discuss it further.
“Every day that we delay it we are seeing the loss of many European lives, and many young people taking up smoking that otherwise might not have done so,” Prof. McKee said.
He warned that the tobacco industry had already begun a media and lobbying campaign calling for a reassessment of the directive following Mr Dalli’s resignation.
“This directive is ready to go on to the next steps and come into law. There is no reason to stop or delay,” Prof. McKee said.
If the directive was kept on hold until Dr Borg was confirmed as Health Commissioner, Prof. McKee would be “very surprised” if Dr Borg did not support it, given that it had already been through detailed scrutiny and consultation.
The directive was vital to prevent young Europeans from starting to smoke, Prof. McKee said.
It would prevent the tobacco industry from enticing young people through flavours that masked the taste of tobacco and chemicals that helped nicotine to be absorbed quickly in the bloodstream, Prof. McKee explained.
The directive would also pave the way to plain packaging, which the tobacco industry has strongly resisted.
Prof. McKee said delaying the directive would reflect very badly on the Euro-pean Commission.
“The public health community in Europe will be holding the Commission to account for the progress of this crucial legislation to protect our children from premature death in future generations,” he said.
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