EU’s regulation and rhetoric on tobacco belies tainted reality

European policymakers, particularly EU health commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis, have recently indicated that Brussels is gearing up for a renewed offensive against the tobacco industry following the European Parliamentary elections in May.

Speaking right before taking part in back-to-back anti-tobacco events in Romania, Andriukaitis warned that the next European Commission will ramp up its tobacco control measures with a particular focus on e-cigarettes, which he referred to as “poison”.

Important steps taken

The European Union isn’t all talk and no action—the bloc has indeed taken a number of important steps towards eliminating one of the biggest health scourges on the continent. The EU was an early signatory to the World Health Organisation’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), and has introduced high taxes on cigarette packets, while banning all cross-border tobacco advertising and sponsorship.

Over half the bloc’s member-states have introduced comprehensive smoke-free environments, with enthusiastic support from Brussels. Most significantly of all, EU officials have enacted the Tobacco Products Directive, which among other initiatives prohibited—although with a five year delay— the sale of flavoured tobacco, a product which tends to appeal to young people,  and increased the size of health warnings on cigarette packets—all this despite heavy resistance from the tobacco industry. As researchers from the University of Bath noted, the Tobacco Products Directive was “the most lobbied dossier” in the EU’s history.

Although the FCTC forbids tobacco manufacturers from influencing their own product’s regulation, the Bath researchers found that the major tobacco companies pushed their agenda in Brussels on a “massive” scale during the TPD drafting process. Philip Morris alone apparently employed 160 lobbyists, and the tobacco giants paid dozens of third parties and had myriads of front groups created to conceal the tobacco industry’s interests.

Worryingly, it appears that this tactic bore considerable fruit. The lobbyists didn’t just succeed in delaying the TPD’s publication; they also succeeded in getting key proposals –including plain packaging and a ban on point of sale displays—removed from the final draft.

Falling short on track-and-trace

Officials such as Andriukaitis—who is currently running for President of Lithuania— may claim things will be different soon. But European policymakers, despite talking tough on tobacco, look set to fall short on one particular mechanism which is essential to regulating the industry: the implementation of a bloc-wide traceability system, which can be used to follow every cigarette from production line to store shelves.

The EU is set to institute a track-and-trace system next month, after years of discussion. A number of member states, however, look as if they won’t take the necessary measures in time, raising the possibility that the system’s implementation will be delayed. Even more concerningly, public health NGOs point to the fact that the tobacco industry retains key responsibilities in the scheme, far more than what’s authorized under the WHO FCTC—something which could undermine the track-and-trace scheme’s entire purpose.

The FCTC’s first Protocol on ”eliminating illicit trade in tobacco products”, which requires its signatories to implement comprehensive track-and-trace schemes, naturally stipulates that these systems must be completely independent from cigarette manufacturers. There are a number of reasons why a separation between tobacco companies and the means of tracking their products is critical: for one, the major tobacco firms have been repeatedly found to be complicit in smuggling their own products. The principal tobacco manufacturers also strive to ensure that no judicial authority can prove where the weak link of the supply chain is, which would enable the cleaning up of the market from its rogue actors.

Industry infiltration

Aware that a true crackdown on the parallel tobacco trade would jeopardise their profits, the big tobacco companies have aggressively pushed an industry-developed solution, known as Codentify. Codentify was developed by Philip Morris in the mid-2000s and licensed—for free—by PMI to its three main competitors. The tobacco titan has since tried to distance itself from Codentify, selling the system (for 1 swiss franc!) in 2016 to a new company called Inexto—though Inexto is run by former PMI employees.

Together—just as they fought to influence the TPD—the major tobacco companies have mounted a tireless lobbying campaign to persuade officials to adopt their solution, supported by a network of front groups paid for their support. This extensive push seems to have paid dividends: the EU has selected a so-called “mixed solution” for the track-and-trace scheme it’s set to implement on May 20th.

MEPs and public health bodies alike have expressed their concerns over leaving key elements of the track-and-trace programme in tobacco companies’ hands. The profile of the companies which have already been selected to operate parts of the scheme have only exacerbated these worries.

The European Commission, for example, appointed a Swiss firm called Dentsu Aegis to operate the secondary data repository. Dentsu’s subsidiary, Blue Infinity, has not only built its own track-and-trace systems based on Codentify, but has also worked with three members of the ‘Big Tobacco’ circle to implement them.

Other companies slated to implement track-and-trace in the EU, such as Atos—which will be issuing IDs in the Netherlands (in the name of its sister company Worldline), the Czech Republic, Denmark, and Lithuania and which has been contracted by De la Rue in the UK—also have a long history of promoting Codentify. In the health commissioner’s own country for example, by 2014 Atos was already partnering with the Digital Coding and Tracking Association—composed of the four main tobacco companies—on implementing a digital tax stamp verification system called… Codentify.

Setting up future battles?

So, for all the EU’s tub-thumping rhetoric, it appears one of their most important pieces of anti-tobacco policy appears set to fall well short of requirements. The prospect of a renewed offensive after the European elections, led by officials who have returned refreshed and reinvigorated, has won Andriukaitis some juicy headlines as he mounts his own campaign for the Lithuanian presidency, but does not reflect the reality on the ground.

By the time the European elections are over, track and trace should be up-and-running—and it looks like the tobacco industry will be on the inside. Once there, it will be fiendishly difficult to prise them out again, or to identify their products in contraband markets.

And as Dr. Vera Luiza da Costa e Silva, head of the convention secretariat for the WHO FCTC puts it bluntly: the tobacco industry is part of the problem, not the solution. Unfortunately, the EU doesn’t seem to have realized that yet.

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