The EU needs to go the extra mile to ensure that policy-making reflects the needs and expectations of people living in Europe and not just those of powerful corporate interests – claims the European Public Health Alliance
The resignation of Maltese European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Policy John Dalli, following an investigation by the European Union's anti-fraud office OLAF leaves many questions unanswered. Despite the corresponding European Commission's official statements, and an OLAF press statement t
o clarify comments contained in recent media reports - many wonder why the affair has been handled so secretly. Why have there been delays in the release of the revision of the Tobacco Products Directive – or TPD - and how exactly did Dalli breach the commissioners' code of conduct? What is clear is that repeated delays in the release of the new tobacco legislation demonstrate that the commission's approach on small-scale regulation should be revisited.
First, Dalli's departure could have perhaps been avoided with clearer rules on European Union officials meeting with the tobacco industry. The EU is a signatory to the World Health Organisation's 'framework convention on tobacco control'
and so it commits itself "to protect tobacco policies from commercial and other vested interests of the tobacco industry". Unfortunately, this obligation is not reflected in the EU approach to 'smart regulation'
. It is understandable that the EU must abide by its own stakeholder consultation and transparency standards, but the FCTC guidelines
require far more transparency and openness in contacts with the tobacco industry. We should perhaps remember that Androulla Vassiliou, a previous European Health Commissioner, told members of the European Parliament: "I am ready to commit today to not accept any invitation coming from the tobacco industry or those working in its interests so long as I hold office."
Despite the current review of the smart regulation agenda, we need to go the extra mile to ensure that policy-making reflects the needs and expectations of people living in Europe and not just those of powerful corporate interests. A more grounded approach to a policy-making that better considers the benefits and costs of legislation through citizen–centered mechanisms would be a step in the right direction. The existing integrated impact assessment process fails to strike the right balance between economic, social and environmental repercussions. A significant flaw, which could carry a hefty price for society as a whole. Impact assessments should focus on the creation of jobs, the movement of goods and administrative costs taking into account the potential health impacts; and the associated social, economic and political costs.
The roadmap for the impact assessment for the TPD i
s a case in point. Policy-makers must take into consideration that, accounting for 650 000 deaths a year, smoking is the largest single cause of preventable death and disease in the EU. In addition, the macroeconomic cost of tobacco-related diseases like lung cancer, heart disease and chronic respiratory diseases has been estimated at €2.46bn per year. As several studies
show, the industry goes to great lengths to exaggerate the economic impact of tobacco control. For instance, the tobacco lobby argues that the European Commission-proposed plain packaging will lead to a loss of fiscal revenues and "a reduction of legal sales due to an increase in illicit trade". This is mere speculation, as there is no evidence anywhere in the world that plain packaging increases illicit trade in tobacco products, which is turn is driven by price and availability.
Another issue worth examining is the reliance on multiple choice questionnaires in public consultations, which has become increasing problematic and limits the ability to discuss problem definition, objectives, policy options as well as their impacts. For example, the consultation for the Tobacco Product Directive r
esulted in 57 per cent of the 82,117 responses being duplicated, largely as a result of rent-a-mob tactics from the tobacco industry and its allies to delay and undermine the legislative process that would introduce stronger tobacco regulation in Europe.
To rectify the public loss of confidence in EU policy-making, immediate work towards the release of the new tobacco directive is the right response that the commission can give in the interests of transparency and public health. The roadmap of the TPD clearly states that it was meant to be adopted last December 2011. Not only we are almost a year behind schedule - the reasons for this delay remain distinctly blurry. The slow motion in which this directive has been taken forward has failed short of"delivering results in the least burdensome way" - the primary, yet unmet, goal of smart regulation.
Monika Kosińska is secretary general of the the European Public Health Alliance non-governmental organisation