O’Reilly criticises EC’s transparency in dealings with tobacco firms

Ombudsman’s report says ‘sophistication of lobbying by tobacco firms is underestimated’

European Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly said ‘public health demands the highest standard’. Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times

European Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly said ‘public health demands the highest standard’. Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times

 

European Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly has strongly criticised the European Commission’s refusal to make its dealings with the tobacco industry more transparent, following an investigation by her office.

A report by Ms O’Reilly in October sharply criticised the European Commission’s transparency policy regarding contacts with the tobacco industry, accusing the Commission of breaching World Health Organisation (WHO) disclosure rules.

While the health directorate-general of the European Commission (DG Health) publicises its dealings with the tobacco industry, Ms O Reilly said this policy should be extended to all sections of the European Commission.

But the European Commission has rejected the findings of the investigation, arguing that its current policy is in line with WHO rules.

Ms O’ Reilly said the Commission’s stance represented “a missed opportunity” by the Juncker Commission to show global leadership in the area of tobacco lobbying.

“Public health demands the highest standard,” she said, saying that it was not enough to justify a lack of proactivity on the grounds that it has met the minimum legal requirements.

“It appears that the sophistication of global lobbying efforts by big tobacco continues to be underestimated,” she had.

A number of appeals had been made to the European Commission in recent months by Irish and international health campaigners calling on the EU to enhance its transparency around health policy.

In a letter to European Commission vice-president Frans Timmermans last month, Minister for Children James Reilly expressed “concern about the manner in which the European Commission manages its interactions with representatives of the tobacco industry”.

Noting the high level of lobbying by the tobacco industry that takes place within the European Union, Minister Reilly said “such lobbying and influence should not be hidden from European citizens”.

The Irish Cancer Society also wrote to the Commission urging it to publicise meetings between all staff in the European Commission and the tobacco industry.

The EU Ombudsman is the EU watchdog which investigates allegations of maladministration in the EU institutions and bodies. While the EU institutions must engage with the work of the Ombudsman, the decisions of the Ombudsman office are not binding.

Ms O’Reilly, a former journalist and ombudsman for Ireland, assumed the position of European Ombudsman in October 2013 and was re-elected by the European Parliament in December 2014. Her term runs until 2019.

Ms O Reilly’s investigation into the Commission’s dealing with the tobacco industry followed a complaint by the Brussels-based non-governmental organisation Corporate Europe Observatory that the European Commission was not meeting its obligations under the WHO’s Tobacco Control Convention.

The Ombudsman upheld that complaint, and also queried why certain meetings between European Commission officials and lawyers representing the tobacco industry were not considered as meetings for the purpose of lobbying.

Controversy has previously surrounded the Commission’s relationship with the tobacco industry. Malta’s EU Commissioner John Dalli was forced to resign in 2012 after an anti-fraud investigation connected him to an attempt to influence EU tobacco legislation.

A report from Olaf, the EU’s anti-fraud office, claimed that a Maltese lobbyist had approached the tobacco producer Swedish Match and proposed making use of his contacts with Dalli to fix the EU export ban on powder tobacco. Mr Dalli denies the claims.