This week last year the machinations of Big Tobacco sparked a scandal in Brussels. John Dalli was removed from his post as the European Commission’s health chief over allegations – which he denies – that he solicited bribes from a Swedish manufacturer of chewable tobacco. With reports of espionage and burglary, the whole affair spiced up the often turgid world of EU politics for a while.
According to spin-doctors, Dalli was sacked because the Commission wanted to show the peddlers of addiction that they couldn’t write the law. Yet the EU’s governments and institutions proved just how malleable they were later in 2012, when they binned a proposal to ban outright the branding of cigarettes and require that they all be sold in plain packets.
By a combination of bullying its adversaries and schmoozing its allies, the industry has been able to weaken the plan considerably. When the dossier – known as the “tobacco products directive” – was put before the European Parliament recently, many of our elected representatives displayed greater concern about the profits of the private sector than the health of their constituents.
As well as hiring a battalion of in-house lobbyists, the tobacco industry is using a network of front groups to attain its goals. Typically, these groups have inoffensive names, leading the uninitiated to surmise that they are full of cerebral types, more interested in how things work in theory than in practice.
The late Stanley Crossick, for example, is regarded as an intellectual giant among the suits who flock to events held by his outfit, the European Policy Centre. It is uncouth to mention that the exalted “think tank” was set up with the help of British American Tobacco, which remains one if its funders to this day.
The European Justice Forum (EJF) has a particularly misleading name. Whereas it could easily be mistaken as a human rights organisation, the membership list of this select group includes cigarette-makers Philip Morris and Japan Tobacco. David and Charles Koch, the billionaire brothers, are represented, too, indicating that they are intent on destroying environmental and social regulations on both sides of the Atlantic.
The EJF claims that it is focused on “collective redress”, the principle whereby a number of people can take legal action against a company accused of damaging their health. Tobacco firms have faced civil action lawsuits in the US; the forum is concerned that similar challenges could be mounted in other parts of the world.
The forum has been engaged in stealth lobbying against the tobacco products directive. A policy paper that it drew up earlier this month protested against a move by some members of the European Parliament (MEPs) to introduce the concept of “producer responsibility” into the tobacco products directive.
Under that tenet, the tobacco industry could be sued by those suffering from cancer or heart disease. According to the forum, this would “set a dangerous precedent that could lead to efforts to target other industries.”
I contacted Arundel McDougall, the EJF’s director, asking him why the paper did not spell out the forum’s links to tobacco. He replied by saying that the EJF’s members are listed on its website. McDougall also claimed that the paper wasn’t circulated among MEPs but was simply prepared to “address a generic matter of concern to all our members”.
I’m not convinced by his reply. Britain’s Conservative MEPs publish periodical, albeit skimpy, records of their meetings with lobbyists . These show that the EJF has sought appointments in the Parliament on a number of issues this year. It’s hard to believe that tobacco wasn’t discussed at any of these encounters.
The EJF has a close relationship to Edelman, which describes itself as the world’s largest public relations firm. Both have offices in the same building in Brussels.
Martin Porter, head of Edelman in this city, told me that while the EJF is among his firm’s clients, Edelman did not provide any assistance “in preparing or disseminating” the forum’s paper on tobacco. “Doing so on this issue is excluded from our scope of work for the European Justice Forum,” Porter added.
The EJF’s activities fit into a pattern described in a 2008 report by the World Health Organisation. “Recognising that the public and politicians are increasingly unsympathetic to the demands of the tobacco industry, it has sought to align itself with more socially acceptable entities,” the report stated. “Such groups often appear in the news media and at legislative hearings, where they seek to reframe tobacco control policies as economic issues rather than public health initiatives.”
BusinessEurope, an alliance of corporations, has been resorting to the same trickery. In a May hearing at the European Parliament, Carsten Danöhl, a senior adviser to BusinessEurope, argued that the tobacco products law would have repercussions for world trade.
Danöhl portrayed himself as a champion of industry generally, yet his script didn’t specify that his organisation includes cigarette-makers and that they have been making an identical case – almost verbatim – to his.
Policy-makers have a legal obligation – enshrined in a convention of the World Health Organisation – to get tough with Big Tobacco. The equally bellicose and sneaky tactics of the industry are designed to destroy that convention.
Big Tobacco is so hostile to regulation it would probably sell hand grenades to three-year-olds if it could. Because this horrid industry isn’t short of friends among the super-rich, it seems vital to me that the left singles out tobacco for special opprobrium.
We should call out every outfit that receives funding from cigarette-makers as front groups for Big Tobacco. For that is exactly what they are.
A version of this article was first published by EUobserver.
David Cronin is the author of the new book Corporate Europe: How Big Business Sets Policies on Food, Climate and War published by Pluto Press.