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Commission in breach of UN tobacco lobbying rules, says EU Ombudsman

Science & Policymaking

Commission in breach of UN tobacco lobbying rules, says EU Ombudsman

The Ombudsman's findings are another embarassment for the European Commission over its relationship with Big Tobacco.


The European Commission fails to meet United Nations transparency obligations over tobacco lobbying the EU Ombudsman has found, in the latest of a string of embarrassments over the executive’s relationship with Big Tobacco.

Emily O’Reilly found “inherent weaknesses” in the Commission’s current practices, and that, with the exception of DG Health, the Commission’s approach was “inadequate, unreliable, and unsatisfactory”.

It was also in breach of requirements made under the UN World Health Organisation 2005 Tobacco Control Convention, she said. The Commission told EurActiv it believed it had correctly interpreted the obligations of the Convention.

The Barroso Commission, rocked by the Dalligate graft scandal, was too secretive about meeting Big Tobacco lobbyists, the Ombudsman said. 

Health Commissioner John Dalli was sacked by Former Commission President José Manuel Barroso in October 2012, after an anti-fraud investigation connected him to a €60 million attempt to influence EU tobacco legislation.

>>Read: Dalligate coverage

O’Reilly, who investigates maladministration in the EU institutions, called on the current administration, now led by Jean-Claude Juncker, to publish every meeting and minutes of meetings with tobacco lobbyists and their lawyers.

She found that certain meetings with lawyers representing the tobacco industry were not considered as meetings for the purpose of lobbying by the Commission.

In her official recommendations, she said that the rest of the executive should follow DG Health’s example of proactive transparency. Only DG Health hit the required standards, she said.

Corporate Europe Observatory

The Ombudsman inquiry was brought after NGO Corporate Europe Observatory complained that the Commission was failing to meet UN World Health Organisation transparency rules on tobacco.

2005’s Tobacco Control Convention requires signatories, including the EU, to be accountable and transparent. 

The Commission argued that by answering access to document requests, and by responding to questions from Members of European Parliament, it met that obligation.

O’Reilly disagreed. She concluded that the Commission must take active measures to limit interactions with Big Tobacco, and to be transparent about its dealings with it. Otherwise, no details of meetings with lobbyists would become public unless a question was asked.

O’Reilly said, “The European Commission has a particular responsibility in its role as initiator of EU legislation to ensure that policy-making in public health is as transparent as possible. It is an opportunity for the Juncker Commission to be a global leader in this area of public health promotion.”

The executive has until 31 December to explain how it will implement the Ombudsman’s recommendations. If it chooses to ignore them, the Ombudsman can ultimately close the investigation with a damning report.

“This ruling is a significant victory for the fight against the sinister scheming of this lethal industry,” said Corporate Europe Observatory’s research and campaigns coordinator Olivier Hoedeman.

“The Commission’s complacency and secrecy over its contacts with the tobacco industry are deeply regrettable – but part of a pattern. We hope it will finally get the message that it must fulfil its UN obligations and take strong measures to prevent the undue influence of tobacco lobbyists.”

The Commission, which runs a transparency register and online portal, was asked for comment shortly after this article was published. 

An official said, “The Commission believes that its interpretation of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control is the correct one, and that its practices offer a high degree of transparency.

“The Commission is fully committed to enhanced transparency across all areas of its work. Upon taking office in November, the Commission presented its transparency initiative for contacts between interest representatives and the Commissioners, their cabinets, and Commission Director-Generals. 

“We will carefully assess the Ombudsman’s report and respond within the deadline.”


The European Union Ombudsman investigates complaints about maladministration in the EU institutions and bodies. Any EU citizen, resident, or an enterprise or association in a Member State, can lodge a complaint with the Ombudsman. 

NGO Corporate Europe Observatory complained that the Commission was failing to meet UN World Health Organisation transparency rules on tobacco.

The European Union's top health official, John Dalli, resigned in October 2012 after an anti-fraud investigation connected him to an attempt to influence EU tobacco legislation.

A report from OLAF, the EU's anti-fraud office, claimed that a Maltese lobbyist had approached the tobacco producer Swedish Match and proposed making use of his contacts with Dalli to fix the EU export ban on powder tobacco.

The report claimed that, while Dalli was not involved, he knew what was going on. Dalli rejected OLAF's findings, denying that he was in any way aware of any of these events.


31 December: Deadline for Commission to respond to Ombudsman

Further Reading

European Ombudsman

Corporate Europe Observatory

European Commission

Press articles