Tobacco’s dirty power game goes global

Revelations during last year's tobacco lobby battle in Brussels offered an insight into the extraordinary ability of tobacco companies to delay and weaken legislative proposals they oppose


Last week’s publication of a report in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) about the tobacco industry’s massive lobbying campaign against EU anti-smoking legislation has come as a timely reminder of the ability of big corporations to influence law-making in Brussels.

In our work to expose the power wielded by big business in EU policy making, Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) has found few industries to rival tobacco in terms of access to key figures in EU institutions, and ability to capture the democratic process.

This is despite UN rules obliging decision makers to restrict the influence of the peddlers of this lethal product. The power of the industry was no more evident than in the run up to last April’s passage of the Tobacco Products Directive (TPD), with its rules governing how tobacco products are manufactured, produced and marketed in Europe. Currently, however, there are new threats on the horizon as the same industry uses its power to shape policy at the national, European, and global levels.

Revelations during last year’s tobacco lobby battle in Brussels offered an insight into the extraordinary ability of companies such as Philip Morris International (PMI) to delay and weaken legislative proposals they oppose. Files leaked during ongoing talks on the dossier showed just how comprehensive Philip Morris’ strategy to access politicians was.

Tactics included unsolicited visits from lobbyists to MEP offices; invitations to drinks, dinners and cocktail events; targeted and coordinated social media and email campaigns; indirect lobbying through small retailers, anti-counterfeiting firms, and farmers’ groups. The campaign had already managed to get plain packaging proposals dropped from early draft proposals. While measures such as a ban on ‘slim’ cigarettes and health warnings covering 75 per cent of boxes didn’t make it into the legislation, the final outcome was nevertheless an improvement on previous rules.

But what the whole process demonstrated very clearly was that relations between lobbyists and some MEPs were shockingly intimate, as exposed by the French news site Mediapart. And by no means was it just MEPs. Undisclosed meetings involving top European Commission officials were the subject of a complaint by CEO to the European Ombudsman on the grounds that they ran counter to the World Health Organisation (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control which includes guidelines on contacts between the tobacco industry and policy makers. The Ombudsman is set to release her ruling on the case later this spring.

Meanwhile, the tobacco industry has recently taken its fight to member states to challenge the implementation of the TPD, pushing heavily against plain packaging proposals in some countries – for instance, the threat of court action against Ireland from the owners of Benson and Hedges and Silk Cut. To facilitate this, the industry has teamed up with major Brussels law firms in an effort to ensure that controversial Investor State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) provisions remain part of the ongoing talks on the EU-US free trade agreement (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership – TTIP).

ISDS would allow companies to take governments to new international arbitration tribunals to sue them when they deem that a domestic law impacts the company’s profits. It is in this way that Philip Morris is currently suing the Australian government for loss of profits following the introduction of tighter restrictions on the sale and promotion of cigarettes.

For decades, big tobacco has shown its disdain for public health. In Brussels, we’ve recently seen it flex its muscles over policy making procedures. Now we’re witnessing an intercontinental attempt to future-proof this industry’s self-perceived right to attack democratic measures that would protect our health.

But the threat posed by TTIP to fundamental democratic values is becoming a rallying point for a growing campaign to defeat it. The example of big tobacco is among the most glaring examples of the dangers of failing to control corporate influence over politics. The threats are real and must be confronted now. Citizens be warned!

Olivier Hoedeman is the research and campaign coordinator at Corporate Europe Observatory. Follow him on Twitter

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23 Responses to “Tobacco’s dirty power game goes global”

  1. treborc1

    Ban smoking totally. ok hard to do but simple start to put the cost up and keep it going up.

  2. BrS

    Why? Going to ban all risky things?

  3. BrS

    I don’t like their influence on general principle and do wonder if they have anything to do with the attacks on electronic cigarettes. Although that could just be the EU nanny state idiots doing what they usually do – destroying freedom any chance they get.

    Overall though I can’t see from this article that these companies are doing anything problematic. Plain packaging is a stupid idea hatched by interfering idiots. People are well aware of the dangers of smoking tobacco, there is plenty of tax collected on its sale, so the rest should be left to personal choice. If these EU muppets really cared about anyone’s health they’d be fully behind the switch to electronic cigarettes, but then their agenda isn’t about health, it’s about controlling people.

  4. Guest

    Ah, loads of taxpayer cash for health issues, and you won’t charge them for that, you’ll just control people by demanding they pay for it even if they don’t smoke.

    It’s the EU controlling people here, it’s you and your agenda to put company interests before people.

  5. BrS

    No, it is the EU that puts organisations before people. The bean counter attitude, treating humans as mere costs to be balanced against income, is the basis of your argument. Taken to its logical conclusion all behaviour must be costed and controlled. But on smoking it’s a losing argument anyway. Smokers already pay extra tax, plus they’re likely to die younger, thus saving the state a fortune. So the misanthropic accountants should have nothing more to say on the matter.

  6. calimero

    So you’ll pay less taxes, won’t you..
    No hope, people..
    Smoke pot..

  7. Guest

    You haven’t read what I said, of course – and it’s YOUR argument that all behavior must be costed and controlled, as you then argue that a sin tax makes it all good (no matter the other effects) and hence there’s no argument for not spending loads of cash on your vice.

  8. BrS

    Wrong, I pointed out that even if the bean counter argument, which you made, were a valid reason to restrict freedom it is already taken care of by taxes and early death.

  9. Guest

    So, factless “UR wrong”.

    Then you point out your own argument, which you accuse me of making.
    Then you highlight the fact you want higher tax and earlier death for the peons.


    I’m not the one here who opposes the five freedoms…

  10. BrS

    “loads of taxpayer cash for health issues, and you won’t charge them for that, you’ll just control people by demanding they pay for it even if they don’t smoke”

    Your statement.

  11. BrS

    “you highlight the fact you want higher tax and earlier death for the peons”

    Who are these peons and where did I call for them to be taxed and then killed?

  12. BrS

    If smoking were banned we’d all pay more taxes. Many people don’t realise that smoking tobacco has become a major cash cow for governments. Of course they still bring out the bean counter argument and drone on about health risks, but ultimately they’d need other taxes to make up for what they make off smokers.

  13. Guest

    So you can’t read your own posts.

  14. Guest

    So repeating my description of your tactics helps how?

    You’re against freedoms – for example, the four freedoms.

  15. Guest

    Your bean counter argument, as I said.

  16. BrS

    Not making a bean counter argument. Simple fact. I frankly don’t care whether tobacco costs more or less to the tax payer as it is not at all a relevant factor in discussing freedom. You made the bean counter argument in support of not allowing tobacco products. Your statements to that effect gave been quoted.

  17. BrS

    You made the bean counter argument, as quoted above.

  18. BrS

    You should be putting this reply onto your own post. Go read them again. Perhaps get a native English speaker to help you.

  19. BrS

    “you won’t charge them for that”

    No, I won’t. I don’t hold with the bean counter argument.

  20. Elena Genuos

    They got their taxes, but they still keep harping on about the costs of health care for smokers.

  21. Elena Genuos

    Why are you complaining about the alleged monetary health issue costs of smoking? If you think balancing the figures is important can you show that it costs more to allow smoking than not?

  22. Elena Genuos

    But they keep brining it up as a financial burden for non-smokers.

  23. Elena Genuos

    Who are you arguing with here? The post you’re responding to makes no mention of costing and controlling all behaviour.

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