The highly controversial legislation — which has already seen the forced resignation of a European Commissioner and led to investigations by EU fraud body Olaf — is at a very sensitive stage.
Ireland, which holds the EU Council presidency, has a pivotal role to play to get member states to agree their position on the legislation.
However, a secret meeting between Enda Kenny, Finance Minister Michael Noonan, Justice Minister Alan Shatter, and the tobacco lobby has infuriated members of the European Parliament and anti-smoking organisations.
German MEP Ingeborg Grässle, who is spearheading a probe into why ex-commissioner John Dalli was forced to resign last year, accused the Government of not following European procedures.
“There is so much money involved in this, so much harm that is done to people’s health, and the tobacco lobby is so powerful that the Irish presidency has to be especially careful. The question has to be asked why did the Irish ministers meet them? We have to show credibility, and this undermines the credibility of the whole legislative procedure and calls it into question.”
The meeting in Dublin earlier this month with John Player, British American Tobacco, and Japan Tobacco International followed similar meetings by officials working for Mr Noonan and Richard Bruton, the enterprise minister, despite a warning from James Reilly, the health minister. He said Ireland had signed up to the World Health Organisation’s World Tobacco Treaty in 2004, committing to transparency in any meetings with the tobacco industry.
The Tobacco Products Directive is now before the parliament’s public health committee, which will play an important role in how MEPs vote on it.
Labour MEP Nessa Childers, a member of the committee, condemned the Taoiseach’s actions.
“This is absolutely shocking and shows complete disregard for all in Ireland who campaign for public health issues and against cancer. It is especially embarrassing for the Irish presidency, which is overseeing the negotiations on the EU Tobacco Products Directive.”
Ms Childers, who co- chairs the MEPs Against Cancer forum, said the Taoiseach must reveal how and why the industry was lobbying the Government.
“This directive was a major priority for the Irish presidency. We know that the industry are lobbying specifically on tax and intellectual property grounds against the new EU law,” she said.
A Government spokes-person said the meeting was about tobacco smuggling.
The revised legislation would see 75% of all packaging covered by pictorial health warnings; allow countries to introduce plain packaging, and a ban on the use of attractive flavours.
The cost of treating people suffering from tobacco-related illnesses in Ireland is €1bn a year, Dr Reilly recently told the Dáil.