The new study from our Tobacco Control Research Group, published in the BMJ journal Tobacco Control, found that industry lobbying tactics were deployed on a 'massive' scale on the introduction and implementation of the 2014 European Union Tobacco Products Directive.

As a revised version of the 2001 Directive, this becomes national law next year and includes an increase in the size of graphic health warnings, a ban on certain flavourings, restrictions on the size and shape of cigarette packs, and regulation of e-cigarettes.

Studying industry interference

Yet the Directive is weaker than the original proposals, according to the latest study. The process for revision took over five years, and was beset by controversy, amid claims of tobacco industry interference, forcing the resignation of the Health Commissioner John Dalli and being described as “the most lobbied dossier in the history of EU institutions.”

In a bid to look at the scale and nature of tobacco industry lobbying and assess how recent regulatory reforms have affected corporations’ ability to exert influence, the study analysed a wide range of documentary evidence.

This included 581 documents obtained through Freedom of Information requests; 28 leaked Philip Morris International papers; 17 transnational tobacco company documents from the Legacy Tobacco Documents Library (University of California); minutes, meeting reports and press releases from the European Commission, Council of Ministers, and the European Parliament; plus a variety of web content including media coverage and blogs. Semi-structured interviews were also carried out with tobacco control experts and members of European Parliament.

The researchers took account of the impact of Article 5.3 of the World Health Organisation (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), which seeks to curb the influence of the tobacco industry on public health policy, and European regulatory reforms known as ‘Smart Regulation’, which aim to reduce red tape and boost business competitiveness.

Extent of lobbying tactics

The analysis revealed that industry lobbying tactics were deployed on a ’massive‘scale. Philip Morris International alone employed over 160 lobbyists, and described third party involvement as “key to success.”

Numerous third parties lobbying for the tobacco industry position were identified. 51 had clear financial links with the tobacco industry.

Throughout the review process, tobacco industry access and influence were secured through the highest levels of political and legal power within the EU, with high profile former EU officials enabling this access. There was also repeated undisclosed contact between senior Commission officials and industry representatives, indicating that Article 5.3 is not being implemented in some parts of the Commission, despite it being a signatory to the FCTC since 2005.

EU has failed in its duty under FCTC

As a result, two of the proposals that industry was most concerned about - plain packaging and point of sales display ban - were removed, and progress of the Directive was subject to repeated delays at every stage of the process.

Lead author Silvy Peeters from our Department for Health explains: “The study documents a massive and underhand lobby to subvert the democratic process. The tobacco industry hijacked the public consultation and used numerous third parties to lobby on their behalf. More worryingly they successfully wielded influence via the most senior officials in the European Commission leading to significant delays and weakening of the Directive.

“The fact that the tobacco industry enjoyed this level of access and influence indicates that the EU has failed in its duty under the FCTC, the first global public health treaty developed by the World Health Organisation, to protect public health policies from tobacco industry influence.”

Smart regulation?

The study is consistent with previously raised concerns that the Smart Regulation agenda enables corporate interests to exert undue influence. This is particularly pertinent considering evidence that British American Tobacco, with other companies producing products damaging to health, were instrumental in pushing the Smart Regulation agenda in the EU, anticipating that it would make it more difficult to pass public health legislation.

Co-author Professor Anna Gilmore also of the TCRG added: “Our paper indicates that the EU policy process is flawed, giving the tobacco industry, despite its long history of manipulating evidence, an explicit role in providing its own evidence and contesting independent evidence of policy impacts. This in turn raises major concerns about the ability of powerful corporate actors to prevent policies that run counter to their interests. EU citizens should be worried that recent developments in EU policy are likely to further threaten the institutional safeguards for public health protection.”

“Smart Regulation tools must be reviewed to ensure they serve the public and not just corporate interests, uphold Article 5.3, particularly in parts of the Commission not responsible for health and in the European Parliament, and fulfil the EU’s broader commitment to transparent policy making,” conclude the researchers.