New rules on tobacco products anticipated next year threaten the EU's Roma inclusion strategy and will increase mafia activity – leading to the importation of contraband genetically modified Chinese tobacco – lobbyists and MEPs warned this week.
The arguments against the introduction of tighter regulations on additives and flavours in cigarettes, set to be introduced by the European Commission next year, were launched at a debate in the European Parliament which saw angry clashes between MEPs.
The new rules are likely to clamp down on additives and flavours used in Burley, the most commonly cultivated leaf in the 13 tobacco-farming EU member states, of which Italy, Poland, Bulgaria and Spain are the largest producers.
Hungarian Socialist MEP Kinga Göncz, who sits on the Parliament's employment committee, said that 50% of the 20,000 seasonal tobacco workers in Hungary are unskilled Roma.
She said that cultivating tobacco offers them almost their only opportunity for work, adding: "When we discuss the directive we need to discuss these employment aspects situated in the regions of Roma, and if we are planning any kind of changes these should be done on a step-by-step basis."
Illés Bényei, president of Hungarian Tobacco Growers' Association, told the meeting that tobacco cultivation created a secure and a crime-free environment for Roma workers, many of whom were women. He added: "This is important for the EU's Roma inclusion strategy."
African livelihoods threatened by tobacco rules
Tobacco growers also pleaded the case of non-EU countries, claiming that African producers would suffer from the introduction of new rules.
Antonio Abrunhosa, president of the International Tobacco Growers' Association, told the meeting: "We are discussing trade-offs […] Malawi relies on Burley tobacco for 70% of its GDP, and half of its population are employed in the industry. If some of the ingredients are banned it would have no impact on consumption, since the contraband market will increase, but in Africa more than four million workers could be directly affected, and the EU will have to help out.”
EU Health Commissioner John Dalli hit back, saying: "Farmers must protect their jobs but we must protect lives. Here we are talking about aggressive marketing to induce more people to smoke when it is a proven health risk. You talk about trade-offs, but am I being asked to trade human lives for about 20,000 part-time jobs?"
Tobacco rules will light up the mafia
Lobbyists also warned that tighter rules would benefit the mafia.
François Vedel of the International Union of Tobacco Growers said: "If I was in the mafia I would be investing in this business because some of the best-known brands will have limited access to the markets [if new rules are introduced] and the smokers will simply use contraband."
He added that the contraband would include genetically modified tobacco from China.
The debate saw angry exchanges between MEPs, indicating that attempts to bring in new rules next year will be fiercely fought in the European Parliament.
Greek Socialist MEP and agriculture committee member Spyros Dannellis wondered whether new rules would really protect public health or simply "punish Burley growers". He added: "It's difficult to swim against the ideological current especially when political correctness dominates. This is an ideology that takes its toll on our everyday decisions."
But Irish Socialist MEP Nessa Childers hit back: "While all have the right to breathe, we also have the right not to listen. The idea that ideology can be confused with concern for life is absurd […] you have revealed how you will use these tactics, and I for one will not be listening."