Thursday, June 13, 2024

World No Tobacco Day: NGOs vent frustration at EU’s failure to act

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Civil society organisations have called for swift action on tobacco at the EU level while expressing disappointment at the European Commission’s delays in addressing tobacco usage in several legislative files.

On World No Tobacco Day (31 May), many NGOs, including Smoke Free Partnership Coalition, the European Cancer Organisation and Lung Cancer Europe, called for an acceleration of policy action to help work towards a tobacco-free generation in a joint press release.

Speaking to Euractiv, Richard Price, head of policy at the European Cancer Organisation, said “I fail to understand the lack of urgency in progressing the Beating Cancer Plan’s tobacco legislation promises, especially in contrast to recently-adopted legislation on air pollution and asbestos.”

Tobacco-free Europe

Achieving a tobacco-free Europe was one of Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen’s key action areas in the 2021 Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan. However, none of the actions foreseen in its implementation roadmap have been concluded.

At the heart of the matter are delays in updating existing legislation on tobacco products, including stricter controls on purchasing, taxation, and advertising, and in issuing a Council recommendation on smoke-free environments, planned for the third quarter of 2023.

Tobacco control is now back in the spotlight with the EU election campaign, emerging as a priority in the programmes of The Party of European Socialists, of the European Greens and the European Left.

Everybody points at lobby pressure

SFP’s Director Lilia Olefir told Euractiv “the scale of industry interference at the EU level points out that the delays of all EU files is not a coincidence”.

Contacted by Euractiv, a source from S&D said that delays are quite clearly due to pressure from the tobacco lobby on the Commission to delay the roll-out of updated legislation that would hamper tobacco sales.

The tobacco industry comprehensively spent €19 million in 2022 on lobbying activities with the Commission, according to the SFP’s analysis of the EU transparency register.

The European Ombudsman has concluded on lack of transparency from the Commission regarding meetings it had with tobacco lobbyists in 2020 and 2021.

In a letter sent to the Commission, EU Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly noted “These meetings not only took place with senior staff within the Commission (Commissioners, Heads of Cabinets, and Directors-General) but also with staff at lower levels”.

Asked to comment by Euractiv, a Commission spokesperson stated that “When it comes to contacts with the tobacco industry, the Commission has been uncompromising in delivering the highest standards of transparency (…) DG SANTE publishes online details of all meetings with the tobacco industry”.

Friends in the Parliament

In the past five years, the tobacco industry has held more than 100 meetings with nembers of the European Parliament, according to the EU transparency register.

European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) and Identity and Democracy (ID) were the groups who held the most meetings with a total of 35.

Meetings were also held during Parliament’s work on the report of the Special Committee on Beating Cancer (BECA), and the report on non-communicable diseases (NCD).

Several amendments were tabled in BECA to distinguish electronic from traditional cigarettes.

What’s at stake

Consumption of tobacco amongst EU’s youth is on the rise, according to a new World Health Organisation (WHO) survey. 20% of school-aged children smoke e-cigarettes and 15% smoke traditional cigarettes.

With the increase in the sales of products such as e-cigarettes and nicotine pouches, the Commission has prohibited the use of flavoured heated tobacco products, but it is facing increasing political pressure for more comprehensive legislation on novel tobacco products.

Greens/EFA have requested no tax exemptions for e-cigarettes, whereas the EPP and ECR advocate for a “moderate approach to harm reduction”.

[Edited by Alice Taylor]

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