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Political and civil society leaders joining forces to counter Big Tobacco lobbying

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Against a backdrop of increasing scrutiny of influence in the European institutions post-Qatargate and Europe’s enduring struggle to clamp down on the booming illicit tobacco trade, a European Parliament working group on the revision of the EU’s Tobacco Products Directive is holding a round table on 19 April to address the Brussels-based lobbying efforts of Big Tobacco – an industry that has long fuelled the black market and undermined attempts to rein it in.

Hosted by French MEPs Michèle Rivasi and Anne-Sophie Pelletier, the event, entitled “Tobacco lobby influence strategies within European institutions,” is expected to feature representatives from leading tobacco control NGO coalitions as well as researchers from the University of Bath’s renowned Tobacco Control Research Group (TCRG). Participants will discuss the various lobbying and “soft power” tools in the industry’s arsenal of influence that it has aggressively wielded in recent years.

EU lobbying offensives exposed

In 2020, the TCRG published a study exposing Big Tobacco’s widespread lobbying efforts during the consultation phases of the EU’s track and trace system, which the European Commission launched in May 2019 as part of its combat against the illicit tobacco trade. While the World Health Organisation (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) requires track-and-trace schemes to be industry-independent, the study’s researchers found that industry overtures had resulted in the EU giving “tobacco manufacturers considerable influence over key elements of the system.”

An Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) investigation from 2020 revealed serious flaws in the track and trace system adopted by the EU, resulting from these years of Big Tobacco’s trojan horse tactics. From inheriting elements of the Philip Morris International-developed Codentify system, which was plagued by inherent security and counterfeiting vulnerabilities, to imposing weak financial deterrents for fraud offenses, the OCCRP concludes that the EU’s crackdown on the illicit tobacco trade has clearly been shaped by industry interests. More recently, MEPs including Michèle Rivasi have also raised questions over a potential conflict of interests involving former Commission officer Jan Hoffman accepting a position at Dentsu – which owns a company, Blue Infinity, that helped develop Codentify – after playing a role in its selection as a key operator of the EU track and trace system. 

But how this situation occurred? According to the Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) and European Public Health Alliance (EPHA), the tobacco industry employs a wide-ranging lobbying playbook, which includes postponing and protesting against Brussels regulations, exploiting divisions between member states and even spreading patently false claims on the impact of tobacco control policies. Beyond track and trace, these methods have infiltrated the policy development process for tobacco excise taxation and public health, with the CEO and EPHA emphasising weak transparency within EU institutions as a key enabler of Big Tobacco powerplays.

And concerningly, as anti-tobacco online platform Génération Sans Tabac has highlighted, the industry has accelerated its influence efforts during the Covid-19 pandemic, exploiting the fact that beleaguered governments lowered their guards to its lobbying assaults – a reality which could be reversed by post-Qatargate transparency reforms such as those proposed by the European Parliament.

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Global tobacco control efforts

The tobacco industry’s influence efforts are certainly not limited to Europe, with tobacco majors actively lobbying governments in Africa and Asia – the world’s new smoking hotspots – to mould track and trace systems to their commercial interests.

As part of the global public health response, the WHO is convening the leading tobacco control organisations for the tenth session of the Conference of the Parties (COP10) to the FCTC and the third session of the Meeting of the Parties (MOP3) to the Protocol to Eliminate Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products, both of which will be hosted in Panama in November 2023. The agenda will include a particular emphasis on insulating tobacco control efforts from Big Tobacco’s influence strategies – largely seen as the most significant threat to the successful implementation of the WHO FCTC – as well as tackling the broader social, economic and environmental impacts of tobacco consumption.

The French anti-tobacco NGO federations Alliance Contre le Tabac (ACT) and Comité National Contre le Tabagisme (CNCT) are among the organisations standing up to industry manoeuvring. Through public educational initiatives on the wide-ranging harms of tobacco consumption and advocacy campaigns aimed at policymakers, their work reflects the action of a growing global coalition of NGOs and politicians seeking to counter Big Tobacco’s misleading narratives and expanding influence in the halls of power, thus ensuring that public policy places the health and well-being of citizens above industry profits.

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