EU Parliament putting Commission in hot seat over shadowy Big Tobacco lobbying

Exactly one year after Qatargate shook the European Parliament, the scandal is back in the spotlight amid new document leaks further revealing the cash-for-influence corruption scheme. Ironically, this fresh revelation has surfaced as the European Commission prepares the launch of its draft Foreign Agents law to counter malign third-country interference.

Yet the Commission’s proposal has attracted strong criticism from NGOs concerned that its foreign funding transparency requirements would expose them to the anti-democratic crackdowns enabled by similar rules in Hungary and Russia. Moreover, Transparency International EU has warned that this legislation not only fails to repel foreign influence but “neglects threats originating from within” the EU.

Of these internal vulnerabilities, Big Tobacco’s shadowy lobbying efforts have long been a particular blind spot—one which underscores the need for bolstering EU oversight and supporting emerging efforts to protect the bloc’s tobacco control policies from industry interference, as exemplified by the recent cross-party MEP inquest into Dentsu Tracking’s role in the bloc’s anti-smuggling track and trace system 

Tobacco industry influence under spotlight

While Big Tobacco lobbyists are allowed to meet with EU officials, this engagement is heavily restricted under the World Health Organisation’s Framework Convention for Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC). Yet, despite the transparency guardrails’ simplicity, the EU continues to fall short.

Last April, European Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly released the findings of a preliminary inquiry spotlighting a systemic lack of transparency in the Commission’s interactions with Big Tobacco. In a letter to Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, O’Reilly emphasised ongoing issues with “maladministration” dating back to 2016, with vital measures such as meeting necessity checks and minute-taking proving to be “the exception rather than the rule.”

As the European Public Health Alliance has highlighted, these loopholes have been consistently exploited by Big Tobacco, with the industry’s policy influence playbook including delaying tobacco control regulations, promoting false narratives and advocating for industry-friendly anti-smuggling technologies. Moreover, the Global Center for Good Governance in Tobacco Control (GGTC) has recently cautioned that industry interference is intensifying.

Within the EU, the tobacco industry’s undue influence has manifested itself primarily in terms of the bloc’s track and trace system and tobacco taxation policy. Leading anti-tobacco NGOs have reported the industry’s manoeuvring to delay and disrupt vital tobacco control policies, including the industry’s push for an ad-hoc track and trace system that does not meet independence requirements laid out in the WHO Illicit Trade Protocol. Beyond stalling, Big Tobacco has also shaped Brussels’s policy development process, leaving the Parliament to step up where the Commission is failing.

MEPs standing up to industry with Dentsu Tracking probe

Last April, a Parliamentary working group held a roundtable with global tobacco control experts to shed light on the industry’s covert interference in EU institutions. Hosted by French MEPs Anne-Sophie Pelletier and the late Michèle Rivasi, the event focused significantly on the manipulation of the bloc’s track and trace system.

Organisations represented at the event had previously exposed the industry’s extensive lobbying campaigns which led to its significant influence over the track and trace system through the selection of core operator Dentsu Tracking, whose historic links to tobacco companies and industry technology violate the WHO FCTC’s industry independence requirements. What’s more, Rivasi had publicly questioned whether Dentsu Tracking’s successful bid resulted from a conflict of interest after it came to light that Jan Hoffman – a senior DG SANTE official working on tobacco traceability during the opaque tender process – was hired by Dentsu shortly after.

Encouragingly, the mission that Rivasi spearheaded is gaining steam, with nearly 40 MEPs spanning the entire political spectrum—from The Greens/European Free Alliance to the European Conservatives and Reformists Party (ECR) via the ‘Grand Coalition’ majority of the Socialists and Democrats (S&D), Renew Europe and the European People’s Party (EPP)—recently joining the cause.

In late November, this exceptionally-large and ideologically-broad coalition of lawmakers signed onto a Parliamentary question initiated by French MEP Pierre Larrouturou taking the Commission to task for its inaction with regards to its lack of transparency in the Dentsu case and broader tobacco industry dealings. Exceeding the high support threshold required to trigger a mandatory oral response process, MEPs are pushing the EU executive for answers outlining its criteria for assessing Dentsu Tracking’s industry independence, approach to addressing “revolving doors” cases at DG Sante and mitigation plans for conflicts of interest involving new and former staff.

While the Commission has long managed to avoid such direct transparency scrutiny, the Larrouturou-led MEP probe suggests that the tide may be turning against Big Tobacco’s grip in Brussels.

Roadmap for crucial months ahead

To build on this emerging momentum, the EU will need to carry out a range of mutually reinforcing actions.

As German MEP Daniel Freund has rightly asserted, “self-control of the EU institutions doesn’t work,” meaning that the bloc urgently needs an independent oversight body to lift the veil on covert influence operations – whether emanating from foreign governments or Big Tobacco companies. Transparency International has also called for the Commission to propose legislation to create a lobby register for all types of foreign and internal interest representatives.

With tighter transparency controls to clamp down on tobacco industry interference, the EU would create the space to effectively bolster its tobacco control policies. Given the significant opportunity presented by the long-awaited revision of the TPD and TTD, the EU should ensure that it matches the ambition of its forefront member states. A group of French MPs led by Frédéric Valletoux, for example, recently proposed WHO-compliant legislation to tackle the tobacco industry’s illicit trade complicity – an initiative notably supported by Minister of Public Accounts Thomas Cazenave.

Finally, the EU must work more closely with NGOs to counter the tobacco industry’s pervasive myths and public manipulation with awareness-raising campaigns that communicate the positive impacts of the bloc’s tobacco control policies.

With this combination of policy measures, the EU can start rolling back the tobacco industry influence that has run amok for decades. As the Commission and Parliament progress transparency efforts to tackle foreign government interference, its leaders will need to ensure that this crusade equally captures international tobacco giants to root out long-overlooked corruption and protect European citizens from industry interests.

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