Can Europe Make It?

Can the battle against Big Tobacco be won?

The tobacco industry’s relentless behavior, including a massive 'astroturf' campaign, led French MEP Françoise Grossetête to assert that it cannot be considered a ‘normal’ industry.

Amanda Clarkson
1 February 2018

Revenues Martin Rogers at Dublin Port with one of the largest ever hauls, branded Excellence, of black market cigarettes recovered by Customs, October 2017. Niall Carson/Press Association. All rights reserved. Tobacco control oftentimes feels like battling Goliath. Even if five years have passed since the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco (FCTC) Protocol to Eliminate Illicit Trade on Tobacco was adopted to tackle the illicit tobacco trade, this tool still needs six more countries to ratify it in order to come into force. Big Tobacco is intent on keeping it this way.

On the face of it, cracking down on the sale of illegal tobacco should be a no-brainer. Not only is it a tremendous financial drain costing EU countries an estimated €10 billion in revenue each year, but it also undermines any policy attempt to discourage smoking by heavily taxing tobacco products. In the real world, however, logical arguments often lose out, especially since the tobacco industry itself has reaped billions from the parallel trade.

The list of countries that have so far ratified the protocol reveals both surprises and glaring absences. Swaziland, Burkina Faso, and Turkmenistan, countries not usually renowned for their commitment to social welfare and public health, have rushed to endorse the report.

At the other end of the spectrum, numerous nations long recognized as standard bearers in the field, such as Norway, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, the United Kingdom and Canada have inexplicably not ratified the protocol. Numerous nations long recognized as standard bearers in the field, such as Norway, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, the United Kingdom and Canada have inexplicably not ratified the protocol.

While this glaring hesitation may or may not be tied to the tobacco industry, understanding the perplexing hand wringing over the FCTC only makes sense if one remembers the saga surrounding the EU’s Tobacco Products Directive (TPD).

 “The most lobbied dossier in the history of EU institutions”

When the TPD was adopted in 2014, it was hailed for having “some of the most ambitious tobacco control measures in the world”. The directive, however, was the result of more than five years of difficult negotiations, which included the dramatic resignation of Malta’s top EU official.

Health and Consumer Policy Commissioner John Dalli was pushed out amidst allegations that he was aware of a scheme to extract money from a Swedish tobacco company in exchange for the Maltese lifting a ban on snus (chewing tobacco), which had been banned for decades in the EU. 

But even this triumph for EU action turned out to be a damp squib. The final directive was significantly watered down from initial drafts: a ban on slim cigarettes, which are known to especially appeal to women and young people, was axed. Other measures were weakened: a requirement that 75% of tobacco products’ packaging be devoted to health warnings was relaxed to 65%, while e-cigarettes were regulated for general sale rather than as medicines.

This dilution of the directive’s most important provisions was chalked up to the tobacco industry’s influence. The TPD was singled out as “the most lobbied dossier in the history of EU institutions”. One political advisor claimed that the lobbying from the tobacco industry during the directive’s drafting was cranked up to 11 on a scale of 1 to 10.

According to Reuters, Philip Morris International (PMI) dedicated at least 160 lobbyists and €1.25 million to subverting the directive. The odds were so severely stacked against health advocates that one MEP compared their struggle against tobacco industry influence to the biblical battle between David and Goliath.

In this case, there were four formidable Goliaths – the ‘big four’ tobacco companies, PMI, British American Tobacco (BAT), Japan Tobacco International, and Imperial Tobacco – all of which sought to scrap measures that would have harmed their bottom line. The companies maintained lists of MEPs they hoped to influence, including notes on their personal lives. Lobbyists even gave out free cigarettes and slipped sample e-cigarettes into MEPs’ post-boxes. The companies maintained lists of MEPs they hoped to influence, including notes on their personal lives.

MEPs were flooded with emails purporting  to be from their constituents, but which revealed a suspiciously detailed understanding of the complex directive and its various provisions.

Turns out, these solicitations were part of ‘astroturf’ campaigns, false grass roots initiatives set up by corporate stakeholders. The multinational tobacco corporations’ use of front groups like retailers’ associations and farmers’ unions was so severe that the World Health Organization highlighted their involvement on their website.

And this is where the FCTC comes into play. The ongoing war between regulatory Davids and industry Goliaths now revolves around the implementation of a track-and-trace (T&T) system, provided for in both the TPD and the FCTC’s embattled Protocol.

Once implemented, T&T would render tobacco smuggling almost impossible, as packs would be traceable from factory floor to store shelf.  And the Protocol’s jargon-heavy sections contains one particularly upsetting provision: T&T must be independent from the tobacco industry – a claim that Big Tobacco has been doing its utmost to sabotage.

The proposal is now up for a vote in the European Parliament, which could still overturn the bill and give the EC one more chance to respect its international obligations.

Indeed, much like the TPD, the EC’s track and trace proposal leaves open a number of loopholes tailor-made for the tobacco industry. In particular, the presumption of independence granted to companies which generate less than 10% of their worldwide turnover from the tobacco sector keeps the door open for Trojan Horse firms like Inexto, a cunning rebranding of Codentify, a track-and-trace system developed by PMI and heavily promoted by the tobacco industry.

The tobacco industry’s relentless behavior led French MEP Françoise Grossetête to assert that it cannot be considered a ‘normal’ industry subject to the same rules as any other.

Any hesitation to take decisive action, such as European nations’ long delay in ratifying the FCTC’s Protocol, is a shameful blow against the public health interests those countries are ostensibly so committed to and a victory for Big Tobacco.

Where next for Labour in England?

The Labour party suffered across the UK last week, losing the Hartlepool by-election and a swathe of council seats in England, and getting its lowest ever vote share in a Scottish parliament election. How should it respond?

Join us for a live discussion on 13 Thursday, May at 5pm UK time.

Hear from:

Clive Lewis, MP for Norwich South and former leadership contender

Jeremy Gilbert, Co-author of ‘Hegemony Now: Power in the Twenty-First Century’

Maddy Kirkman, Labour candidate for Edinburgh Central, disability rights and tenants union activist

Chair, Caroline Molloy, editor, openDemocracyUK

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