EU tobacco directive: delayed vote politics

The week before last, the EPP (centre right group) made a request to delay the vote on the tobacco products directive (TPD) until 8 October (it was scheduled for the September plenary session). This request was supported by the ALDE (Liberal) group and ECR (Conservative) groups and went ahead with agreement of all political group leaders.

Many e-cig campaigners welcomed the delay as they saw it as an opportunity to have more time to persuade more MEPs that mandatory medicines authorisation for e-cigs is not the best way forward.

Following some comments on Twitter, mainly from e-cig campaigners asking why were some people accusing them of being friends of Big Tobacco, I thought it would be a good idea to give some broader background to the situation, which is rather complex.

It is difficult for the tobacco industry to stop tobacco control measures as 165+ countries have signed the WHO framework convention on tobacco control thus committing themselves to implementing various measures. The direction of travel in tobacco control is quite clear, so a key strategy of tobacco companies is to delay.

The Dalligate scandal, which led to the resignation of the Health Commissioner John Dalli in late 2012 and delayed the release of the TPD proposal, is suspected by many, especially public health/tobacco control advocates to have a strong whiff of tobacco industry intervention. Mr Dalli denies any wrongdoing, but what exactly happened is still unclear.

Add this given the timing of when some NGO offices in Brussels were broken into in a highly professional manner and that only documents, USB sticks and laptops belonging to tobacco control staff were taken, it has led some to speculate about who was behind the burglaries.

Neither the Dalligate scandal nor the break in at NGO offices has anything to do with the issue of e-cigs and no-one has suggested they do.

The push to delay the vote on the TPD did not come from ecig campaigners, as neither the industry, public health experts or consumers (vapers) involved had discussed a delay before rumours of an EPP request started to circulate. However, once delaying the vote became a distinct possibility, e-cig campaigners expressed support for it, in order to have more time to persuade MEPs of their concerns.

The EPP group did not ask for a delay on the TPD with e-cigs in mind, their main reasons were that MEPs had not had enough time to read the final ENVI (lead committee) report and that the ENVI committee had not taken other committee opinions sufficiently into account.

The time point is debatable as while several language versions of the final ENVI report were not published until a week before the September plenary vote, the amendments adopted were almost identical to the ENVI compromise amendments, all of which were available in all EU languages prior to the committee vote in July. Admittedly, it is easier to read a final report than read the original proposal and amendments together. However, the same situation will have occurred with other proposals voted in committee in mid July, but they have not all been subject to requests to delay their plenary vote.

It is true that ENVI adopted stronger tobacco control measures than several other committees did in their opinion reports. The issues most mentioned in this respect were the size of health warnings (75% versus 65% or 50%), the ban on slims/menthol (characterising flavours) and the ban on lipstick/perfume type packaging. In relation to e-cigs the different parliament committee opinions were split roughly 50/50 between the medicines route and other options, either consumer or tobacco product legislation. One could argue that as the Committee with public health in its remit, ENVI was likely to prioritise public health concerns.

The ALDE group agreed to support an EPP request to delay the TPD vote on the grounds of the two aforementioned points AND the issue of e-cigs. While the delay was agreed, it is now important the tobacco directive progresses and in a direction that puts public health first.

Public health/tobacco control advocates are now primarily concerned that the delay gives the chance for tobacco companies to throw several million more euros into their lobbying efforts in order to further weaken the tobacco control measures in the TPD (see: here and here)

There is also concern that the delay in Parliament will mean that negotiations with national governments will pass from the Lithuanian Presidency, which is strong on tobacco control, to the Greek Presidency, a country with a poor record on tobacco control and significant tobacco industry operations (on a European scale).

This delay could mean that the TPD is not signed off before the end of this current parliamentary mandate, which could end up delaying the implementation of tobacco control measures for several years, which will please the tobacco industry greatly.

I believe that effectively tackling the public health scourge of tobacco, which kills 700,000 people each year in the EU, requires action on many fronts including tobacco control measures, sensible regulation of e-cigs and of course education. I would therefore like to see the final TPD have sensible regulation of e-cigs AND strong tobacco control measures. A very tough call!

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