MEPs look for smoking gun after Dalli resignation

John Dalli_Picnik.jpg

Lawmakers in the European Parliament called yesterday (23 October) for the tobacco directive update to be published before the end of this year, amid requests for clarity surrounding the resignation of John Dalli as EU health commissioner last week.

Dalli quit after the EU’s anti-fraud office, OLAF, linked him to a Maltese entrepreneur alleged to have asked snuff giant Swedish Match for €60 million in return for persuading Dalli to change the EU's tobacco directive.

The former commissioner denied the claims, and in a letter to the European Parliament on Monday (22 October), called on MEPs to insist that the Commission launches the tobacco directive “so that thousands of lives can be saved”.

Dalli also denied that he was aware of any contacts between the entrepreneur and Swedish Match and objected to the handling of the affair by OLAF.

The EU's former top health official said he was seeking legal advice on how best to clear his name.

Commission spokesman Olivier Bailly insisted that Dalli was not sacked but was "offered the possibility to resign". Given the findings of the OLAF report, Dalli "took that decision to step down” on his own, Bailly told a news conference on Monday.

Dalli’s position had become “untenable” in light of the OLAF report, Bailly said, adding he could not give more detail because the content of the report was confidential.

Directive may now be delayed

Dalli had finished his draft of the updated directive – which was due to go to inter-service consultation within the EU executive this week – with a view to publishing what he regarded as a landmark proposal before the end of the year.

It was touted to contain controversial plain packaging proposals that would have forced producers to remove trademarks from cigarette packets.

On Monday, the spokesman for the Commission’s health department, Frédéric Vincent, said the EU executive considered that the timetable for publication might now slip to 2013.

Meeting in the European Parliament in Strasbourg, Green MEPs yesterday called on Barroso to provide transparency on the circumstances surrounding Dalli’s resignation, and for no further delay to the tobacco directive update.

The co-president of the group – French MEP Daniel Cohn-Bendit – called for OLAF to publish its report on Dalli “in the public interest”.

Concerns raised about undue influence

“The circumstances surrounding the resignation of Commissioner Dalli remain hazy, with resulting concerns being raised about undue influence. Commission President Barroso needs to lift the smoke and provide full transparency about the circumstances surrounding the resignation," Cohn-Bendit told the Parliament plenary session in Strasbourg.

Nine Irish MEPs from across the political spectrum wrote to Barroso calling for him to stick to Dalli’s intention to release the new tobacco legislation in time for the Irish Presidency of the EU, on 1 January 2013.  

"I myself have expressed serious concerns around the sudden departure of Health Commissioner Dalli from his position,” said Nessa Childers, the Irish Socialist MEP who spearheaded the letter.

“He was pushing for strong anti-tobacco legislation. This affair should not delay the legislation. It is far too important to allow the tobacco lobby from delaying it further,” Childers said.

Health NGOs burlgled over weekend

Meanwhile, three health NGOs involved in advocacy campaigns to update the Tobacco Directive reported that their offices were burgled during the night of 17-18 October.

The European Public Health Alliance (EPHA), the Smoke-Free Partnership (SFP), and the European Respiratory Society (ERS) said in a statement that the burglary and the removal of computers was a targeted attack.

A police investigation is ongoing into the burglary of two offices within the same Brussels building which houses the NGOs.

Both SFP and EPHA blamed the “unprecedented interference by the tobacco industry in the ongoing review of the tobacco directive” as the cause of Dalli’s departure.

The Maltese government has said it wants Deputy Prime Minister Tonio Borg to replace Dalli.

“The review of EU tobacco rules is long overdue and this latest delay reflects poorly on the Commission and its commitment to addressing this public health priority,” said French Green MEP Michèle Rivasi .

“Tobacco is the largest single cause of avoidable death in Europe and strengthening EU rules on labelling, health warnings and additives should clearly be a priority in this context. We implore Commission president Barroso not to play into the hands of the tobacco lobby and to ensure the legislative review is presented as soon as possible," Rivasi concluded.

“As co-chair of the MEPs Against Cancer forum, I have campaigned for this anti-tobacco legislation for many months. I have worked closely with the Irish Cancer Society and Irish Heart Foundation, both of whom want this legislation to be proposed by the Commission and negotiated under the Irish Presidency,” said MEP Nessa Childers (Ireland; Socialists & Democrats). 

"Australia has already brought in many of these tobacco controls, like plain packaging and pictorial warnings and the EU should not be left behind in this vital fight against the tobacco industry," Childers added.

Dalli resigned as the EU's commissioner for health and consumer protection last week after an investigation connected him with an attempt to influence EU tobacco legislation.

The nomination of Tonio Borg, the deputy prime minister of Malta, nominated to succeed him, must be approved by the European Parliament after a hearing where the candidate is quizzed by MEPs.

  • 2013: Likely publication of tobacco directive revision


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