Health Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis strongly criticised the tobacco industry on Thursday (19 May), saying it “only kills people”, while expressing his opposition to the renewal of an agreement to counter cigarette smuggling in the EU.
Speaking to a group of reporters on the eve of the entry into force of the new Tobacco Products Directive today (20 May), Andriukaitis wondered “Why we don’t see headlines, why we are so blind, so silent” in Europe concerning tobacco, the single largest cause of avoidable deaths in the EU.
The EU Health Commissioner then went on to draw unexpected parallels between deaths caused by the terrorist attacks in Brussels last march and those caused by tobacco.
“Two terrorist attacks in Brussels are very dangerous, but of course 700,000 premature deaths are also very dangerous,” he said referring to tobacco mortality figures which dwarf deaths caused by terrorism in Europe.
The former physician insisted that “Tobacco is a very profitable industry that only produces something that kills people, nothing more… such industrial activity is a mistake from different perspectives.”
Fight against smuggling
His comments came as the European Commission is about to decide whether to extend a controversial deal with Philip Morris and other big tobacco firms to fight against the smuggling of cigarettes in Europe.
Andriukaitis stated that “There is no legal need to continue with such an agreement.” The Commission is emphasising that the new directive will provide better tools to address such challenges.
According to the deal reached with Philip Morris, Japan Tobacco, British American Tobacco and Imperial Tobacco, the EU, and the member states, will drop all court cases against them, over the loss of tax revues caused by illegal trading in cigarettes. In return, Philip Morris, the world’s largest tobacco company, has to pay $1.25 billion over 12 years (2004-2016). The others will have to pay a total of $900 million.
Tobacco firms were sued for their alleged involvement in smuggling cigarettes in the EU.
The agreement with Philip Morris will be the first one to expire in July. The executive’s decision on its renewal will set the tone for the other three.
Decision by early June
Andriukaitis told reporters that Commissioners will make up their mind about continuing the agreement by the end of May, or the beginning of June.
He said that there was a very good cooperation ongoing with Commission Vice-President Kristalina Georgieva, who is in charge of the dossier, as she oversees OLAF, the EU’s anti-fraud agency.
Compared with Andriukaitis’ strong views, the Bulgarian Commissioner’s opinion is more “moderate” and “cautious”, EU officials told euractiv.com.
In a debate held in the European Parliament in February 2016, Georgieva left all options open for a renewal of the agreement.
“The question is whether or not, between today and the time when we have the Tobacco Products Directive in place – 2019, or the time when we have the [World Health Organisation’s] Eliminate Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products protocol enacted – 2022, we still need a legally binding instrument to fight illegal trade,” she told MEPs.
However, Georgieva faces strong arguments against maintaining close ties with big tobacco.
A European Commission assessment of the agreements noted that these deals bring “anti-fraud policy, if not EU policy at large, too close to comfort to the tobacco manufacturers”.
The report also highlighted that these companies are legally challenging the new Tobacco Products Directive. This “prompts some to question whether it is opportune for the EU to enter into a contract with an entity on policy issues related to the ones legally challenged.”
Georgieva is aware of the risk of the negative impact for the EU’s image that the continuation of such agreements could cause.
Moreover, the Commissioner does not want to antagonise MEPs by neglecting the negative opinion they gave on the deals, just when she is about to start negotiating the EU budget with co-legislators.
In a resolution voted on last March, a majority of lawmakers urged the Commission not to renew the deal, as they proved ineffective to stop the increase of smuggled non-branded “cheap white” cigarettes.
The executive and the European Parliament agreed that the WHO’s protocol could be a much more powerful instrument, as it will introduce at international level better tools to trace and track cigarettes.
The protocol will enter into force once it is ratified by 40 countries. Only 16 countries have done it to date, including only five member states (Austria, France, Latvia, Portugal and Spain).
Meanwhile, a majority of member states are in favour of prolonging the anti-smuggling agreements with the tobacco sector. EU officials said that around 20 member states responded affirmatively when the European Commission sent letters to the capitals last year to request their views.
Focus on implementation
In the meantime, the European Parliament called on the executive to focus on the implementation of the Tobacco Products Directive, which also includes similar tools at EU level.
Adopted in 2014, the directive will enter into force today. Andriukaitis was positive, as up to 19 national governments are preparing stronger measures.
But only Germany, Italy, Malta, Portugal and Slovenia completely transposed the directive on the eve of the entry into force, while it was partly adopted by Belgium, Estonia, Lithuania and the United Kingdom.
Britain, France, Ireland, Hungary and Slovenia either adopted or planned to include plain packaging, where brands and logos are removed.
The Lithuanian Commissioner warned laggard that he will be “very active” in ensuring that all member states bring their national legislation in line with the new EU rules. Otherwise, he is ready to launch infringements procedures without delay.
The Commission, along with the member states, will assess the implementation of the Tobacco Products Directive during the next group of experts on tobacco policy, to be held on 15 June.