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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