We’ve all seen those 20th century posters claiming that doctors recommend this ‘fresh’ or that ‘healthier’ brand of cigarettes and had a chuckle. It seems ridiculous now to consider smoking a healthy lifestyle choice. In spite of the efforts of Don Draper and co., tobacco has become one of the most heavily regulated industries when it comes to lobbying. As it should be.
Just as we look back and laugh at those posters of healthy, happy smokers, will we one day see contemporary car adverts in the same light? Those smooth and stylish videos of Volkswagens and Audis gleaming under lens flare and urban lighting, amid snow, sand and trees, telling us that their new diesel engine is leaner and greener than ever before. In the future I think we’ll find striking similarities between contemporary images of the glistening ‘green’ Golf and the old happy, puffing Cowboy.
When it became obvious how devastating the effect of tobacco lobbying could be on public health, the World Health Organisation provided guidelines on how to deal with these lobbyists. These guidelines now apply to all EU institutions and impose much stricter transparency rules. But why isn’t this the case for other harmful industries?
A car manufacturer should not be able to lie about a car’s performance by cheating on a test. And yet that’s precisely what’s Volkswagen emissions scandal revealed. Questions have been raised as to whether the power of lobbying was a factor in allowing this cheating to go undetected.
From a quick look at the EU Transparency Register we know that Volkswagen spent 3.3 million EUR on lobbying in Brussels last year, making them one of the top ten lobbyists in town. The company sits on 14 European Commission Expert Groups advising on everything from alternative fuels to “re-naturing cities”. VW is also a member of “hundreds of associations and industry groups”. However, they only list five examples, including Brussels’ most influential industry groups such as Business Europe and the European Car Maker Association.
While the EU’s transparency regime provides some degree of clarity as to what is going on in the European Parliament and the European Commission, we have no idea what’s being said in meetings at the European Council. Through the investigative work of Transparency International Germany we know that the German Chancellor Angela Merkel defended the interest of the German car industry better than any lobbyist ever could, watering down EU emissions regulation.
It was Germany, France and the UK who were lobbying the Commission to retain weaker standards on emissions testing. Yet Paris is forced to ban half the cars in the city on hot summer days as the smog is so thick. There are 5,800 deaths in the UK alone which can be directly attributed to emissions from diesel fumes. And in Germany, pollution is well beyond acceptable levels in most urban areas. Europe-wide there are more than 430,000 premature deaths a year related to air pollution, numbers approaching the 700,000 deaths attributable to smoking.
It’s not just the tobacco and car industries that go to great lengths to lobby for their interests, even when those interests are actively harmful to the wider public. There are dozens of industries regulated by EU law where this is also possible, including the food, alcohol and pharmaceutical industries.
The laws that never made it can also show us the strength of lobbying. Five years ago the EU tried to introduce ‘traffic light’ food labelling like you can see in British supermarkets, indicating how harmful or healthy a particular product is. A massive 1 billion EUR lobbying campaign by groups representing the food industry saw the bill die on the floor of the hemicycle in the European Parliament.
In France, a major scandal erupted when an anti-diabetic drug called Mediator, which was also prescribed for weight loss, was allowed to stay on the market until 2009, despite increasing concern over suspected public health risks. Conservative estimates claim that the delay in withdrawing the drug resulted in the deaths of 220–300 people. The case sparked a furore about the lobbying power of pharmaceutical companies in France. The official report cited “pressure” exerted by the company behind the drug, Servier, which had reportedly lobbied policy-makers and health experts to keep Mediator on the market. A trial to determine whether the company misled patients and authorities began earlier this year. The company has denied all allegations of wrongdoing.
One group, Transparency International EU, are advocating for the full disclosure of all meetings with lobbyists and the publication of their recommendations. This is known as a “legislative footprint” and it would allow citizens, journalists and civil society to monitor lobby influence around the decisions that affect us all. It’s an idea worth supporting, simply because lobbying affects almost everything you do, even if you don’t know it.
There is a positive side to lobbying: it gives people a voice, and is an essential part of any healthy democracy. Policy-makers rely on technical expertise and innovative ideas from the outside world in order to make informed and adequate decisions. But the undue influence of lobbyists, whereby they can gain unfair or excessive access to policy-makers, can skew laws in favour of corporate interests. This might have been the case with the car industry and the EU’s emissions testing standards.
Only a few weeks ago we believed that diesel cars were a cleaner and greener option, just as doctors once recommended cigarettes. It shouldn’t take a scandal for change to come about. Transparency across the board would help ensure that the standards we set are there for the public good, for our health and wellbeing and not just for profit.
Carl Dolan is the Director of Transparency International EU, the EU liaison office of the global movement against corruption
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