EU health boss Andriukaitis ‘does not listen’

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.com PLC.

For the European Smoking Tobacco Association (ESTA), this was yet another unprofessional statement. [Herefordshire Council/Flickr]

EU Health Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis and his services have systematically refused meaningful dialogue and appropriate consultations, Peter van der Mark writes in reaction to an interview published on EURACTIV.com.

Peter van der Mark is the Secretary-General of ESTA, the European Smoking Tobacco Association. This opinion-piece is in reaction to an interview published last week.

In an interview published on 24 November, European Commissioner for Health and Food Safety Vytenis Andriukaitis stated puzzlingly that he has not heard from the tobacco industry on what to do about the illicit trade in tobacco.

Just days before adoption of the proposed implementing rules for an EU-wide tobacco track and trace system, he suggested that the silence he perceives is indicative of the industry’s complicity in tobacco smuggling.

For the European Smoking Tobacco Association (ESTA), this was yet another unprofessional statement. Not only is it not becoming for a European Commissioner to make such baseless accusations, it shows the Commissioner has not been listening.

As the voice of small to mid-sized manufacturers of fine-cut and niche tobacco products, ESTA has on many occasions repeated the commitment of its members against illicit trade in tobacco.

The Commissioner and his services have systematically refused meaningful dialogue and appropriate consultation. It is not surprising then that they did not hear the industry’s solutions.

The Commissioner continues to argue that there is no need for industry involvement in developing industry regulation. His actions have promoted tunnel vision in his services and hindered their ability to propose a workable track and trace system that takes account of all market players, not just a select few.

Contrary to what the Commissioner argues, it is the legislative actions of some member states and the Commission itself that risk spurring the illicit tobacco trade.

By failing to grasp the economics of indirect taxation at play and overruling the concerns of national finance ministries and Commission taxation experts, several policies taking hold within the EU will drive more people, not fewer, to purchase tobacco on the black market.

Member states’ customs services and the EU’s anti-fraud body OLAF understand that tobacco smuggling is mainly linked to cheap white cigarettes and not with other tobacco products such as western European pipe tobacco, traditional European nasal snuff and chewing tobaccos – all represented by ESTA.

These niche tobacco products are manufactured by family-owned smaller companies in Europe and exported around the world. The requirements imposed by the onerous rules under discussion at EU level will spell the end for many of these generations-old businesses.

ESTA is supportive of a reasonable and realistic track and trace system, but it is the Commissioner’s services that are ignoring valid warnings and proposing an overly complex and non-interoperable system. It was only a few years ago that half of all Member States were unable to implement the Tobacco Products Directive on time due to its complexity.

The Commission would be well advised to embrace a track and trace system that can work and be implemented in a timely manner. A failure in this regard would speak to the Commission’s own role in obstructing the fight against illicit trade.

Commissioner Andriukaitis is also confusing the ratification of the Anti-Illicit Trade (AIT) Protocol of the World Health Organization with the delegation of power the Commission obtained from the European Parliament and Council.

The track and trace Implementing Regulation must legally be based on the 2014 Tobacco Products Directive and it is not up to the Commission to introduce new or conflicting elements from the AIT Protocol into secondary legislation. Nor is it credible for the Commission to re-introduce provisions that were intentionally removed from the 2014 Directive by member states during the legislative process.

It is time for the Commission to take in the Brexit message and consult transparently with member states and directly impacted stakeholders. Deflecting genuine concerns by demonising the industry and those Member States sharing the concerns of industry jeopardises more than just jobs in the tobacco sector, it undermines the principles of better regulation and of the EU itself.

ESTA’s members can be part of an effective plan to combat the illicit tobacco trade. But to hear the industry’s views, the Commissioner must be willing to listen.