Kyprianou: I strongly support bans on smoking in public places

Markos Kyprianou told EURACTIV that promoting healthy
lifestyles and mental health, as well as ensuring food safety,
would be among his priorities as commissioner for health and
consumer protection. He added that it was his ambition
to have smoking bans introduced in all member states by
the end of his term. 

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Commissioner Kyprianou, would you give EURACTIV a brief
preview of the main priorities under the new health strategy? Which
new ideas coming out of the public consultation will be
incorporated into the strategy document?
 

I will be presenting a new strategy in the coming months setting
out priorities both for health policy and consumer policy. These
are policies with a common goal: improving wellbeing and promoting
confidence among EU citizens. I am determined to achieve synergies
between them and thereby increase their effectiveness and their
visibility. Health and consumer protection are policy issues
citizens care about, so it is important that we get them
right. 

I still need to discuss the strategy with the other
commissioners, so I cannot give you too much detail of its content.
Nonetheless, empowering citizens to lead healthier lifestyles,
promoting cooperation between member states’ healthcare systems and
strengthening Europe’s defences against infectious disease are
likely to be key themes. Action on tobacco, alcohol, obesity,
HIV/AIDS and mental health should also feature strongly in the
strategy. 

One message that came across strongly from the reflection
process launched last year was the need to target children and
adolescents in our strategy. The seeds of many diseases – from
heart disease to mental illness – are often sown in childhood. I
completely take on board the importance of addressing this in our
strategy. 

During your brief period in office, you have already
indicated a few topics, for instance, the fight against smoking and
mental illnesses, as priorities for you. Which specific issues
would you highlight as being particularly close to your heart and
why? 

I passionately believe in the importance of promoting healthy
lifestyles. The overwhelming majority of premature deaths in Europe
can be directly linked to poor diet, lack of physical activity,
smoking and excessive alcohol consumption. The lifestyle habits we
learn during our childhood and adolescence are of crucial
importance here. For example, 80% of smokers start the habit during
their teenage years. In view of this, some of the trends I see
among young Europeans worry me: persistently high levels of
smoking, a growing culture of binge drinking and unsafe sex, and
rising levels of obesity. I want to do something about
this. 

Mental health is an area I feel has not received enough
political attention. Each year in the EU, around 58,000 people take
their own lives and the vast majority of these deaths are linked to
mental illness. That is more people than are killed in car crashes
or by murder. Yet mental health receives surprisingly little
attention – you could say mental illness is Europe’s unseen killer.
Again, I think this is something I can help change. The WHO
Ministerial Conference on Mental Health, which I attended in
Helsinki in January, makes me optimistic that we are already
heading in the right direction. 

I also feel strongly about my role in ensuring food sold in the
EU is safe and about protecting the rights of consumers. These are
issues that touch the daily lives of citizens around the EU. The
EU’s work in these areas is an opportunity to connect with people –
we can show how Europe brings direct, tangible benefit to them as
an individual consumer. 

After Ireland, a smoking ban was introduced in
Italy in January. What are your objectives on smoking during your
term and what can the Commission do to help member states in their
actions against tobacco use?
 

I strongly support the bans on smoking in public places
introduced by Ireland, Italy and, indeed, Malta. It is my ambition
that by the end of my term in office similar bans will have been
introduced in all member states. Citizens throughout the EU deserve
to be protected from the risks of passive smoking. I believe this
should be the next big objective for tobacco control policy in
Europe. 

Of course, my overriding objective is to reduce the number of
Europeans who smoke. The Commission will shortly be launching a €
72 million, four year publicity campaign aimed at dissuading young
people from starting smoking and convincing existing smokers to
kick the habit. I will also, over the coming months, be pushing EU
countries to introduce hard-hitting picture warnings on cigarette
packs. These have proved to be effective in other parts of the
world, such as Canada, and I am sure they will make a difference in
the EU. I would also like to see a levelling upwards of taxes on
cigarettes across the EU and national laws banning smoking in
public places. 

During your hearing in the European Parliament you said
the protection of patients’ rights, including the right to
information, was an area of concern to you. How would you improve
the flow of information? Will you propose a ‘directive on consumer
/ patient information’ during your term in office (as one MEP
suggested during your hearing)? 

Later this year I plan to launch an EU health portal. This will
provide a single point of access to public health and
health-related information produced by the EU and its agencies, as
well as being a gateway to health information produced by member
state authorities. My hope is that our health portal will improve
the flow of information to patients and citizens, including in
particular young people. I would like to see every EU country make
some basic information available on-line about its healthcare
system and link it to our portal. They should include practical
information about how citizens from other parts of the EU can
access treatment. Of course, we will have to rely on the individual
healthcare system around the EU to publish this information
on-line, and to keep it up to date. Having a directive on patient
information would be one way of establishing a clear obligation for
member states to do this – I certainly do not discount this idea.
However, I believe we can persuade national healthcare systems to
publish more and better information without resorting to
legislation. I am very encouraged by the active role member state
authorities are playing in our health portal project. 

There are disparities among the member states with
regard to the quality and accessibility of care. There are also
differences in this regard among social groups within individual
countries. What can the Commission do to help reduce health
inequalities? 

Health needs to be one of the priorities for the EU’s Structural
Funds. We have already seen some member states, for example
Portugal, using EU funds to invest in improving its health system.
I want to encourage more countries to do so. Modernising its
healthcare system can do as much to boost a country’s economic
performance as building new roads and power stations. Similarly,
some of the money the EU allocates to fighting social exclusion
should also be invested in health. Illness, particularly mental
illness, is often closely linked to social exclusion – either as a
cause or a consequence. This needs to be recognised and
addressed. 

Given its public health implications, can you comment on
the recent scandal surrounding the safety of medicines and the
pharma industry’s decision to make clinical trials data more widely
accessible? How, in your view, could patient confidence be restored
in the safety of medicines, in the interest of public
health? 

Ensuring the safety of medicines is clearly of key importance
from a public health perspective. Millions of people use medicines
daily and they need to be confident that the products are safe, of
high quality and effective. Generally, I think the rules we have in
Europe for assessing the safety of drugs before they are put on the
market work well. But we all know that medicines can have side
effects or adverse reaction that are not picked up in this first
assessment, and for that reason we also need to have a good
pharmacovigilance system. This means that when patients have side
effects or adverse reactions from their medicines, they inform
their doctors who are responsible for communicating this
information to competent authorities. The pharmacovigilance system
we have in Europe works reasonably well, but we need to look at
whether there are ways we can reinforce it. 

Finally, I think that the pharmaceutical industry has an
important role in restoring the confidence of the general public.
Transparency and provision of objective information on new
medicines to health professionals is essential in this regard. In
addition, patients should have access to comparative and objective
information on what treatment options exist. 

Thank you for the interview

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