Tobacco lobbyists and top European Commission officials held several quiet meetings over at least the past two years, the Brussels-based pro-transparency group Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) has been quoted as saying by the EU observer (http://euobserver.com/institutional/118530).
Among them were people from commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso’s own cabinet, his secretariat-general and others in the commission's directorate for health and consumer affairs.
The website pointed out that according to OLAF, the EU anti-fraud office, such undisclosed meetings with the tobacco industry are a direct violation of an article in the World Health Organisation's Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.
Olaf chief Giovanni Kessler reportedly told euro-deputies at a closed-door meeting in October that the convention was mentioned in the John Dalli affair, which centered around his contacts with Swedish Match, a company that makes a type of mouth tobacco called snus.
Commission guidelines echo the WHO convention.
Its internal rules state that officials "should interact with the tobacco industry only when and to the extent strictly necessary" and must "ensure that such interactions are conducted transparently."
Corporate Europe Observatory reportedly unearthed at least five meetings, also outside official channels, between tobacco lobbyists and other top EU commission staff.
One of the meetings took place with Swedish Match and people inside Barroso's own secretariat-general in September, a month before Dalli lost his job.
The pro-transparency NGO says Swedish Match met with secretariat-general officials William Sleath and Jean Ferriere as well as Antti Maunu of DG Sanco to explain their views "on the current situation regarding snus and what we see as a logical step to take in the future, that is a regulation for all smoke free tobacco products in the EU."
In June, Clara Martinez Alberola from Barroso's cabinet met with Spyros Pappas (an unregistered lawyer/lobbyist from the firm Pappas & Associates) and Patrick Hildingson of the Brussels-based European Smokeless Tobacco Council.
In December 2011, tobacco lobbyists from the German-based Bundesverband der Zigarrenindustrie and the Dutch-based European Cigar Manufacturers Association met with Barroso cabinet officials Guillaume Morel and Henning Klaus.
Another meeting took place in June 2010 between Philip Morris International and Barroso secretariat staffer John Watson.
"Dalli's meetings with tobacco lobbyists at his office in Malta were not transparent, but could this be the cause of Dalli's resignation? Does the commission have a strict approach around contacts with tobacco lobbyists, as prescribed in the WHO rules? The answer would seem to be No," said CEO.
The commission, for its part, confirmed all the above meetings took place but said they were not conducted behind closed doors.
"No rules were violated. The EU rules in place for contacts with stakeholders were respected. These are compatible with the WHO recommendations," said commission spokeswoman Pia Ahrenkilde Hansen in an email to EUobserver.
She told this website the commission disclosed documents related to the meetings following freedom of information requests, including by CEO.
But CEO, which found out about some of the meetings through the EU freedom of information law, said watchdogs should not have to prompt the commission to disclose such meetings by making formal requests for documents.
"If you have to ask for documents - and you are lucky if you get them - then this is not the type of transparency as required under the WHO rules," CEO's Olivier Hoedeman told this website.