EU health chief: Next Commission will strengthen tobacco rules

Vytenis Andriukaitis: "I can organise a guide to an oncological department to see what they are doing because they’ve never been there. The industry never understood the suffering of people. Especially, if you have cancer patients in front of you." [Sarantis Michalopoulos]

This article is part of our special report Tobacco control: What’s next?.

The next European Commission will propose strengthening tobacco regulations, based on a report showing how the Tobacco Product Directive (TPD) works in practice, the EU Commissioner responsible for health, Vytenis Andriukaitis, told in an interview.

“We have two issues: one is to collect information about electronic cigarettes but also different novel tobacco products. They will have a lot of work to do. They need to show how the TPD works in reality and explore possibilities to improve it,” Andriukaitis said.

The EU official, who recently announced he would run for Lithuania’s presidency, lashed out against the tobacco industry saying that it has not realised the damage it has caused.

“I can organise a guide to an oncological department to see what they are doing because they’ve never been there. They never understood the suffering of people. Especially if you have cancer patients in front of you,” he said.

Arūnas Vinčiūnas, the head of Andriukaitis’s cabinet, came under fire recently for comparing electronic cigarettes to “poison” but Andriukaitis dismissed those criticisms.

“It would be strange if the industry did not accuse the head of my cabinet. I’d be surprised,” he said.

“My question to the industry is the following: is it harmful or not to smoke? Does it cause cancer or not? Harm is harm. No matter if it’s less or more,” he added.

Andriukaitis said tobacco was an “accidental product” in Europe as no one on the continent smoked before Columbus brought it here. He said nicotine was a completely different issue compared to alcohol, whose consumption indeed needs to be controlled, but alcohol has had 10,000 years of culture in the continent.

Contrary to the EU executive and the World Health Organisation’s strict approach, the tobacco industry claims that vaping is a good way to replace smoking and eventually quit, and should, therefore, be encouraged.

Andriukaitis insisted it was better to use smoking cessation aid such as Nicorette. He added that if there was a real possibility to help heavy smokers kick the habit with the help of electronic cigarettes, then a specific methodology should be followed.

“If one uses electronic cigarettes as a method to stop smoking, it has to be managed by medical doctors and specialists, to be sold in pharmacies and not in supermarkets.”

“But in reality, you see a different picture. The industry proposes dangerous products and they use different loopholes in the directive. And they use different advocates to say they are less harmful. Young adolescents who have never smoked before try to smoke electronic cigarettes. It’s ridiculous,” Andriukaitis said.

Tobacco fight as a human right

The debate over tobacco control in Europe is expected to heat up next week, as public health and human rights activists are organising a series of events in Bucharest with the aim to advocate the fight against tobacco as a fundamental right.

On 26 March, a Global Forum on Human Rights and a Tobacco-Free World will be organised in Romania by the European Network for Smoking and Tobacco Prevention (ENSP), ASH and hosted by Romanian President Klaus Iohannis. In addition, on 27-29 March, ENSP will organise its 4th International Conference on Tobacco Control together with the Romanian Society of Pneumology.

Andriukaitis, who will participate in the conferences, said the right to health was fundamental.

“It’s introduced in the Lisbon Treaty and all our policies should keep in mind that people’s health needs to be protected. It’s a fundamental right to protect children from risk factors and implement child rights conventions signed by countries worldwide,” the EU Commissioner said.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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