Tobacco companies ‘operating in shadows’

Tobacco companies are working through the courts and lobbying the European Commission to roll back rules on smoking that have taken years to bring into force, Children and Youth Affairs Minister James Reilly has warned.

He has written to the senior vice-president of the commission, Frans Timmermans, accusing it of “operating in the shadows” in its dealing with the tobacco industry.

Mr Reilly, who pushed through tough new EU legislation during Ireland’s presidency of the union three years ago, reminded Mr Timmermans that 700,000 people a year die from the effects of tobacco, 5,200 in Ireland.

He has urged the commission to comply with recommendations issued by the EU ombudsman, Emily O’Reilly, to publish all its dealings with tobacco lobbyists.

The former health minister has harshly criticised the commission’s claim that it doesn’t have to abide by the World Health Organisation’s guidelines on tobacco lobbying because they “are not legally binding”.

He accused it of hiding behind legalese saying it signed up to the WHO framework convention on tobacco control that includes protecting public health policies from the tobacco industry vested interests.

“And yet when it comes to the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control guidelines which seeks to ‘establish measures to limit interactions with the tobacco industry and ensure the transparency of those interactions that occur” the commission hides behind the position that the guidelines are not legally binding.

“The industry, with its multibillion euro resources has a major lobbying programme at work with the clear intention of hindering or rolling back progressive public health measures aimed at reducing the prevalence of smoking.

“They leave no stone unturned in efforts to influence decision-making,” he said.

The Government has passed the Regulation of Lobbying Act 2015 because citizens have the right to know what lobbyists are trying to influence government policy, he said.

“It is unacceptable that lobbyists, working on the EU Commission to further the interests of the tobacco industry can do so under the cover of regulations not being “legally binding”.

“It is not against the law for them to be transparent, but clearly it is against their culture. This needs to change,” he said.

Ireland will introduce plain cigarette packaging and he hoped the new graphic health warnings on packets will stop children taking up what he called “this killer addiction”.

“But look at the tobacco industry fighting this development in courts in Ireland, the UK and in Europe every step of the way. Their lobbyists must not be able to work on the EU commission while hidden in the shadows,” he said.

In his letter to Mr Timmermans he said the tobacco industry had a long and shameful record of concealing the truth to protect its profits.

The minister admitted that when he was working on the EU tobacco directive during Ireland’s EU presidency in 2013 that he was “deeply conscious of the lobbying of big tobacco, the meetings being sought and the influence being brought to bear on police being made in the best interests of public health”.

There were revelations at the time that Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Finance Minister Michael Noonan met tobacco lobbyists, despite Ireland signing up to the WHO tobacco convention.

“Lets have a high level of transparency when it comes to meetings with an industry which creates a product which prematurely kills up to one in two of its habitual users”, his letter to vice-president Timmermans concluded.

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