Mysterious thefts scupper EU tobacco crackdown

"The truth will emerge eventually, but it may be too late for the revised Tobacco Directive"

The tobacco industry has been granted a last minute reprieve after sweeping new rules to curtail sales and reduce nicotine addiction were derailed by a series of curious incidents in Brussels.

Health experts and tobacco control activists were on the brink of a hard-fought victory against the industry this month as a tough new Tobacco Products Directive was expected to be adopted by the European Commission.

But campaigners have been left stunned after the enforced resignation of the Maltese Commissioner, John Dalli - the driving force behind the directive - and a suspicious robbery in which laptops and documents containing the evidence to support the tough new regulations were stolen in an apparent targeted attack.

Two of Britain’s leading public health experts today called on European legislatures to press ahead with the directive in order to protect citizens from the “scourge” of tobacco.

Writing in The Lancet Professor Martin McKee from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and Paul Belcher from the Royal College of Physicians argue that any delay or watering down of the directive, which is now widely expected, would hand the tobacco industry another victory in its battle to derail public health measure aimed at disrupting sales.

The revised Directive was expected to tackle once secret trade tactics used to attract future generations of smokers – revealed in industry internal documents released under US court orders.

It was expected to ban a range of flavourings, standardise the width, length, and colour of cigarettes, limit displays at point of sale, require larger graphic warnings on packs; and possibly open the door for plain packaging across Europe.

Specifically, it was also expected to reinforce the existing ban on smokeless tobacco and extend it to e-­cigarettes – in recognition of concerns that companies may try to circumvent the threat of smokers, put off by indoor smoking bans, quitting.

But now all this is in serious doubt. Two weeks ago, Mr Dalli was forced to resign amid amid allegations that he was aware of an alleged bribe, but took no action to stop it.

In a meeting with the President of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, he was told that the European Anti­Fraud Office (OLAF), had evidence that a Maltese businessman had approached a Swedish smokeless tobacco manufacturer, trading on Dalli’s name, and claimed he could influence the Directive for a fee. This approach is believed to have been made after the draft Directive had been finalised, according to The Lancet.

Dalli strenuously denies having any knowledge of this alleged impropriety, and there is no suggestion that he either benefited personally or changed the Directive.

In an interview with The Lancet News podcast, he said that the directive was under threat as he was the main “safeguard”.

Two day after his resignation, burglars disabled sophisticated movement sensors in order to access the offices of two anti­-tobacco and public health organisations on the Rue de Treves in Brussels. Laptops and documents were stolen containing all the material used to evidence the tough Directive while other valuables were untouched.

Professor McKee said the events have “set alarm bells ringing.”

“While the truth about these events will emerge eventually, it may be too late for the revised Tobacco Products Directive.  Yet there is no reason why this should be so.  The only beneficiaries of delay are the tobacco companies… The Directive addresses one of the greatest threats to the health of Europeans, is based solidly on evidence, and should be taken forward as planned,” said professor McKee.

Co-author Paul Belcher, Senior EU government affairs advisor at the Royal College of Physicians in London, said: “The only beneficiaries of delay are the tobacco companies and further delay will raise serious questions about whose interests the EU Commission is promoting.”

You can listen to the related news podcast here.

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