The content of European Council working party meetings on the EU’s tobacco policy review is being leaked to the industry, said an EU source who added that the debate is “hotting up”.
The tobacco industry receives notes and documents from ministerial meetings on the revision of the Tobacco Products Directive and prepares lobbying materials targeting specific policymakers, and the tobacco lobby has sent out the campaign letters using the information as soon as one day after they took place.
“There is an issue that reports of working party meetings are obviously going to tobacco industry," said the source. "Somewhere in the chain there’s a leakage of reports. Then industry goes to certain capitals and complains about the positions taken up by some member states.
“That shouldn’t really be happening. They shouldn’t be engaging with the tobacco industry on issues of public health policy. It’s hotting up at the moment. It’s getting more real,” he said.
The European Council holds working party meetings with national representatives and members of the Commission. Decisions taken at the meetings are sent back to national experts who mull over the legislative amendments. Representatives then reconvene to discuss the proposals of the national experts.
The Council has held so far nine meetings on the revision of the tobacco directive, with another five scheduled for before June when ministers are expected to take up an official position.
The next meeting on the tobacco directive is due on Thursday (16 May), but it may be delayed due to recent strikes at the Council, an unexpected boon for the tobacco industry.
The tobacco industry, which employs over 100 full-time lobbyists in Brussels, is also waging an intense campaign in the European Parliament. MEPs complain of receiving dozens of e-mails, letters and brochures
“MEPs will tell you they’re being bombarded. It’s often through front organisations acting on their [tobacco’s] behalf,” the source told EURACTIV.
The source said that the industry produces reports predicting, for example, a rise in illicit tobacco trade if the Commission’s proposals go through in their current form.
The industry also applies pressure closer to home. "We had a lobbyist from the tobacco industry – BAT [British American Tobacco] if I remember correctly – trying to organise small retailers in my constituency to complain about the draft Commission law," the British MEP drafting the amendments, Linda McAvan, said in emailed comments.
Economic arguments are particularly prevalent, holding more sway during the economic crisis. Anti-smoking campaigners have accused the British government of stalling on plans for standardised, “plain” packaging because industry claimed it would move its packaging suppliers abroad if the government carried through with the move.
"Since the UK government has u-turned on their plan to introduce plain packaging, we may see an increase as industry turns their attention to Brussels," said McAvan, a Labour politician.
The aggressive campaign may be working. “The positions of some member states closely resemble the tobacco industry position,” another source said.
Some political groups also may have been influenced by the industry, he said, adding that some UK Independence Party MEPs often present arguments which closely resemble those of the industry.
Other politicians in the Parliament’s Europe of Freedom and Democracy Group, such as members of the eurosceptic Italian Northern League, have also given statements which appear like a pure copy and paste from industry campaign materials. “But sometimes this is broken down on national lines rather than political groups,” the source said.
“MEPs should be careful about meeting with the lobbyists but it depends on the political group how careful they are.”
In general these MEPs are pro-industry and regard EU regulation on smoking as indicative of a supranational “nanny state”.
The Commission and the Irish EU presidency are attempting to push through the amendments to the tobacco directive as soon as possible to avoid the inevitable delays that would be caused by next year’s European elections.
The Commission says that its proposed amendments to EU tobacco rules would see only a 2% drop in consumption over five years, stressing that the measures will not affect regular smokers but are aimed at preventing uptake amongst the youth.