On the night of October 17th/18th last year, burglars targeted three offices housed in an eight- storey office block near the European Commission headquarters in Brussels. They entered through the windows, disabled outdoor sensors and then waited for 45 seconds. They knew where the internal alarm was situated.
They took several laptops, although significantly not the chargers. Clearly it was not the laptops they were after, but the information inside them.
The three non-governmental organisations (NGOs) which were targeted were the Smoke Free Partnership, the European Respiratory Partnership and the office of the European Public Health Alliance.
All those organisations have one thing in common – they are all engaged in the business of tobacco control.
Qui bono? Who benefits? Who would be interested in breaking into the offices of NGOs involved in tobacco control and why would the burglars be interested in laptops which had information only of interest to those in the tobacco industry?
In a recent interjection at the Oireachtas committee on health, the Minister for Health James Reilly gave a colourful if not altogether accurate description of the "black ops" involved in that break-in.
"The intruders abseiled down from the roof to the seventh floor of the building, cut holes in the plate-glass window, disabled the alarms and got into the offices.
“There were a number of offices and they went straight to the Office of Tobacco Control and removed all the hard discs from the computers.
“Who could afford to launch such an operation?”
Who indeed? Florence Berteletti Kemp, the director of the Smoke Free Partnership, said those who carried it out were "top professionals" and knew exactly what they were looking for. "I cannot say who did it, but I will leave it to the public imagination," she said.
Kemp was one of the speakers at last week’s European Week against Cancer conference in the Aviva Stadium.
She said the break-in “delayed our work for at least a week or two”, but was ultimately a futile act because the most critical information was backed up.
sthe day after the health commissioner John Dalli resigned over a scandal which involved the tobacco industry.
It had been alleged that a friend of his in Malta had sought a large bribe from a Swedish company which makes a tobacco product called Snus citing his influence with Dalli. Dalli has denied any impropriety.
Coincidentally, Dalli was a stern advocate of the tobacco directive which is currently with the Irish presidency of the EU.
Rightly or wrongly, the tobacco industry was blamed for both events but the actions had the opposite effect, according to Kemp.
“I would say that it redoubled our efforts. It has brought the subject of the power of the industry to the parliament. It was a bad idea. It totally backfired on whoever did it.”
Advancing the directive is now in the gift of the Irish presidency and our fiercely anti-smoking Minister for Health Dr Reilly.
He said the break-in made the European Commission aware “that there was a real danger that the tobacco industry had the upper hand on them and clearly the commission is not going to allow that.”
The tobacco directive has a number of main provisions. The first is to outlaw cigarettes such as those flavoured with, for example, menthol or vanilla; the second is to ensure that health warnings cover at least 75 per cent of the pack face, although some countries want it smaller than that; and the third is to ban so-called slim cigarettes which are mainly marketed at women.
It does not include provision for plain packaging which will be brought in by Ireland unilaterally.
While there is broad agreement on the need for tobacco control, tobacco manufacturing is a big industry in countries such as Greece, Spain, the Czech Republic and Poland.
Dr Reilly acknowledged that there was "very serious" opposition from certain countries, particularly Poland which has Europe's second largest tobacco industry.
He said the goal of the Irish presidency was to get an agreed position on the directive at European Commission level and then take it to the parliament for approval.
“I’m a great believer in doing what is pragmatic and doing what is quick rather than try to hold out for the perfection that never comes your way,” he said. “There is a real sense that this is an important initiative and it has to be done.”
The Lithuanian presidency, which takes over from Ireland in July, will now be charged with bringing the directive forward.
“The Lithuanian presidency is very supportive of this and they are determined to lead the charge, but it is very difficult to know when it will come into force,” the Minister concluded.