Tobacco row hits cancer campaign

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The Independent Online

Health Editor

A row between a government minister and a senior member of the European Commission has overshadowed the launch of Europe against Cancer Week, a premier event in the European Union's health calendar.

Geoffrey Martin, head of the Commission's representation in the United Kingdom, accused Tom Sackville, a junior health minister, of ridiculing the Commission "for party political reasons" on the eve of the Conservative Party conference.

Mr Martin and Mr Sackville shared a platform in London yesterday to publicise the results of a survey of 16,000 people which revealed that the British are more ignorant about the causes of cancer and preventive measures than their neighbours in 15 European countries.

Defending the Government's health education strategy, including its Health of the Nation initiative, Mr Sackville said that Britain's attempts to dissuade people from smoking - a leading cause of cancer deaths - with heavy taxes and controls on advertising and promotion, were undermined by the millions of pounds in subsidy paid to European tobacco farmers.

"While we pile on taxes on tobacco in this country, some of those taxes are being spent in Europe to subsidise tobacco farmers. That is ironic and it is unsatisfactory, as I hope everyone will agree."

Mr Sackville added that surplus European-produced tobacco was being "dumped on the overseas market to clog up the arteries of people in the Third World".

However, after he had left the press conference early, Mr Martin seized the opportunity to rebuke the minister for his statement. "I'm not a politician, but there is a limit to which the European Commission can keep quiet when people are walking all over it for party political reasons..."

"Whereas in past years we were prepared to turn a blind eye when attempts were brazenly made to ridicule the European Commission, we now say that we will hit back."

Mr Martin said he was concerned about the impression Mr Sackville gave of distancing both himself and his government from the EU and for suggesting that "recklessness was the order of the day on the part of the Commission".

He said Mr Sackville was out of step with his own Government policies which backed the European Commission's attempts to dissuade southern European farmers from growing tobacco. This could not be done overnight said without threatening thousands of jobs.