Spotlight on #TobaccoControl in #Bucharest, but industry disinformation persists

| April 18, 2019

Romania, which currently holds the rotating presidency of the European Union, hosted the 4th annual meeting of the European Network for Smoking Prevention (ENSP) from March 27th to 29th in Bucharest. The event allowed representatives from every corner of the public health sector to discuss how to optimise tobacco control strategies. Academics from Harvard rubbed shoulders with Health Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis, while Romanian President Klaus Iohannis, one of surprisingly few representatives of the Romanian government at the conference, underlined the importance of cracking down on the tobacco industry, writes Colin Stevens. 

This diverse collection of campaigners goes to show the success of the ENSP, a Brussels-based international network of key NGOs, in bringing together the most engaged stakeholders in the sector to forge a unified approach to the scourge of smoking across Europe. Groups such as Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) and the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, among one of the most active in terms of taking on the tobacco industry, sent a number of representatives to the Bucharest conference.

Industry disinformation

The breadth of associations included in the ENSP provides the organisation with an equally wide variety of points of view. Even with this diversity of voices and opinions, the participants coalesced in Bucharest around a common opposition to the tobacco industry’s duplicitous attempts to “speak the language of public health”.

Philip Morris International (PMI) was particularly singled out due to its attempts to cling to its market share through an insidious smokescreen of anti-smoking rhetoric. The tobacco titan recently rolled out a new programme, The Year of Unsmoke —which purports to encourage smokers to quit but actually pushes them towards PMI’s so-called alternatives, such as e-cigarettes. These inventions carry their own risks, as a growing number of independent studies are confirming.

Noxious networks of front groups 

“Unsmoke” is far from PMI’s only sneaky attempt to tap into the backlash against the damage tobacco does to public health. The Bucharest conference zeroed in on various front groups created by the tobacco industry to infiltrate public health initiatives, such as PMI’s Foundation for a Smoke Free World (FSFW).

The FSFW follows the blueprint of the International Tax and Investment Center (ITIC), ostensibly founded to promote tax reform in developing countries. In reality, ITIC collected funding from all four major tobacco manufacturers and lobbied for their interests, including by arguing against tobacco taxation, the single most effective method of encouraging smokers to quit.

More recently, the Coalition against Illicit Trade (CAIT) has taken shape, hijacking the very real issue of tobacco smuggling to push the industry’s agenda. CAIT’s roster of members already suggests where its real loyalties lie. The organisation includes a number of firms, from French IT services company Atos to the Digital Coding and Tracking Association (formed by the four major tobacco corporations) to Domino—all of which have been involved in creating and promoting Codentify, a system for tracking and tracing tobacco products which has been dubbed the tobacco industry’s “Trojan horse”.

Independent advocates have unceasingly called attention to the fatal flaws with Codentify, or indeed any track-and-trace scheme which entrusts key responsibilities to the tobacco industry. The major tobacco manufacturers have been found complicit in smuggling their own products as recently as 2014. Studies suggest that they are still deliberately oversupplying certain markets, conscious that these products will make their way into the parallel tobacco trade. Public health professor Anna Gilmore, from the University of Bath, warned that Codentify is “one of the tobacco industry’s greatest scams”, an attempt “to control the very system governments around the world have designed to stop companies from smuggling”—with devastating public health consequences.

Is the EU being taken in by the Trojan Horse? 

Despite these warnings, the tobacco industry’s front groups have succeeded in influencing European policymakers. The EU is set to institute a track-and-trace system in May—but the selected scheme, a “mixed solution” entrusting some duties to the tobacco industry, has been criticized by European policymakers and other key stakeholders, particularly public health organisations.

MEPs have expressed their doubts that the planned EU system fits the FCTC criteria that any track and trace system must be completely independent from the tobacco industry. The International Tax Stamp Association (ITSA), a traceability solutions organisation, has even filed a lawsuit before the European Court of Justice on these grounds.

Among the concerning elements of the scheme planned by the EU is the fact that some of the companies which have already been selected as ID issuers have deep links with the tobacco industry. Atos, for example, has been selected to issue identification codes in the Czech Republic and the Netherlands, in Denmark and Lithuania through its subsidiary Worldline, and has been hired as a subcontractor by De la Rue in the United Kingdom—despite the fact that Atos has counted Philip Morris among its clients and lobbied heavily for Codentify, including in Lithuania.

Atos representatives have testified in European Parliament hearings on tobacco control under a veneer of independence—a façade which doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny. When Worldline’s International Business Development manager Eric Lequenne advocated for a “mixed solution” during a July 2017 European Parliament hearing, Florence Berteletti, from a Brussels-based NGO, raised questions about Lequenne’s suitability for the panel: “Whilst Mr Lequenne may appear independent, has he ever promoted Codentify in the past through presentations, articles, or participation in different meetings? And if he did would you trust the solution he wants to promote?”

European policymakers are becoming increasingly frustrated with the tobacco industry’s infiltration of their discussions. At a European Parliament hearing this January on the parallel tobacco trade organized by EPP MEP Cristian Bușoi, French MEP Michèle Rivasi distributed a statement accusing the European Commission of being complicit in the tobacco industry’s lobbying.

The Commission’s principal response has been to underscore that the EU’s Tobacco Products Directive will be reviewed in 2021, and has continued to advocate for the EU system’s qualities— despite this veritable deluge of criticism from politicians, public health NGOs  and security solutions providers.

As they have for years, EU policymakers like Andriukaitis came out with strong rhetoric last month in Bucharest, calling for a “multilateral and holistic approach” to crack down on the industry and reduce the largest avoidable danger to public health in the European bloc. The WHO has been clear that such a holistic approach must include addressing the parallel tobacco trade through a wholly independent system to track and trace products along the supply chain. Unfortunately, the EU has yet to take its own advice and devise such a scheme. 

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