EU keeps tobacco lobbying in the shadows

Lobbying by big tobacco interests will continue to take place in the shadows the European Commission has said, in defiance of recommendations by the EU’s ombudsman.

The Commission, despite promising transparency, has said it will not make public all its officials’ meetings with the tobacco industry and did not regard meetings with the industry’s lawyers as lobbying.

The ombudsman, Emily O’Reilly, said it is in breach of the UN convention and guilty of maladministration, but the Brussels-based body that draws up EU laws says they are just voluntary guidelines.

Ms O’Reilly, the most senior Irish EU office holder, said she “strongly regrets that the European Commission has chosen not to make its dealings with the tobacco industry more transparent in line with UN guidelines”, saying “public health demands the highest standard”. The commission’s relations with the industry have come under pressure over the past few years with revelations of former senior staff becoming lobbyists for the industry and a commissioner being fired following allegations of impropriety.

Ms O’Reilly’s investigation received support from various organisations, MEPs and Children’s Minister James Reilly who said he was concerned about the way the commission managed its interactions with the tobacco industry.

The ombudsman’s initial investigation found the Health Directorate in the commission was abiding by the World Health Organisation’s convention on tobacco control, which the EU is signed up to.

However, she found the approach by the rest of the commission was “inadequate, unreliable and unsatisfactory” and said all meetings with tobacco lobbyists or their legal representatives, as well as the minutes of those meetings, should be published online.

She said the Who guidelines clearly state that “all branches of government” come within the scope of the convention.

The organisation that first complained to the ombudsman, Corporate Europe Observatory, has accused the commission of being complacent about the large-scale lobbying efforts of the industry.

It is particularly concerned about the proposed renewal of a controversial agreement with four of the main tobacco companies on combating illegal trade mainly in cigarettes.

The industry has long been suspected of playing a role in the trade and is now lobbying on what kind of digital marks should be used to prevent counterfeits.

Olivier Hoedeman of the Observatory said: “If the commission does not even take the risks of undue lobbying influence seriously for this most controversial sector, then how can the public have any trust in its overall ability to protect the public interest against regulatory capture and undue influence?”

MEP Nessa Childers whose report for the European Parliament’s health committee on the issue received unanimous support, accused the commission of hiding its contacts with the industry behind “the thickest smokescreen”, and editing out huge amounts of the documents they do release.

Ms O’Reilly could now ask the European Parliament to draw up a special report that would request the commission to comply with her recommendations, which is the “big gun” in her arsenal.

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