Dutch research shows that Big Tobacco wormed its way into European policy yet again
Fresh research by investigative journalists has revealed that the tobacco industry managed to skirt Dutch government safeguards and infiltrate negotiations surrounding the country’s National Prevention Agreement as early as 2018.
The Netherlands’ National Prevention Agreement is a flagship public health policy set on addressing alcohol use, smoking and obesity nationwide. In accordance with the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), Dutch State Secretary for Health Paul Blokhuis made it clear that directly interested parties, including major tobacco industry players, were not welcome in the talks surrounding the agreement.
True to form, however, Big Tobacco ignored the closed door. Instead, tobacco lobbyists found a sympathetic ear in the ruling People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) and managed to successfully water down key measures on excise duty increases, plain packaging and display bans. Worse still, meddling via the Chamber and coalition came down to the wire: less than 24 hours before the agreement was signed in the presence of the press and public, a health ministry official was forced to declare that “a few minor changes have been made.”
The fresh revelations of how deeply the tobacco industry managed to sink its claws into Dutch policymaking explain why the resulting version of the Agreement, signed in November 2018, landed a significantly softer blow on the tobacco industry than was first promised. The initial plan set a goal of raising the price of a packet of cigarettes to €10 by 2023—but the final agreement, after pressure from the tobacco lobby, removed the automatic price increase in favor of a pledge to “evaluate the impact” of the current price. Specialty tobacconists and certain small convenience stores would not be required to abide by display bans. Despite being heralded as “historic,” the Agreement is unlikely to achieve the Dutch government’s goal of creating a “smoke-free generation.”
Unfortunately, this is far from the first time that the tobacco industry has successfully influenced European tobacco control policy in spite of the FCTC’s strict stipulations that Big Tobacco cannot be trusted to be involved in the regulation of its industry. Indeed, the tobacco industry has made serious and sustained efforts to interfere with Brussels’ plans to implement comprehensive schemes designed to track and trace tobacco products and cut down on the illicit tobacco trade.
Academics, public health NGOs and other experts all agree that it’s vital that these track and trace schemes are not subject to undue influence by the industry. In practice, however, the EU has accepted a “mixed” solution entrusting tasks to the tobacco industry (notably the selection, appointment and remuneration of data storage providers).
Experts have warned that the Commission’s system is far too lenient with the tobacco industry—and potentially incompliant with the WHO’s Protocol to Eliminate Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products. Now that the system has been live for more than a year, it is already demonstrating problems, with some data storage providers apparently not reporting data correctly.
Given the lack of transparency around the whole scheme, public health officials are not yet certain whether the reporting problems are due to major flaws in the system—but, given that some key data storage providers have close ties to the tobacco industry, the issues shine a fresh light on why it’s vital to keep track and trace schemes out of the hands of industry players.
The root of tobacco industry opposition to effective track and trace measures is the fact that the tobacco industry itself has historically been involved in tobacco smuggling as a means of avoiding scrutiny and evading tax requirements, so much so that fully two-thirds of the illicit cigarette market is attributed to legitimate tobacco industry players. Efforts by authorities to do away with the illicit tobacco trade, in the interests of public health and the public coffers, pose a direct threat to tobacco industry profits.
The current EU track and trace scheme has endured extensive criticism from tobacco policy experts the world over, and for good reason. Many of the providers selected to take part in the bloc-wide scheme are known to be longtime partners of the tobacco industry. Atos and its former subsidiary Worldline, chosen to generate identifiers for the UK, the Czech Republic, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Lithuania as part of their track and trace schemes, boasted for years that it was the “technology provider of Codentify”—a “solution” developed and promoted by the tobacco industry which public health officials have dismissed as unfit for purpose.
Dentsu, which was appointed by the Commission without public tender to manage the secondary central data repository for its track and trace efforts, acquired Blue Infinity, a firm that developped Codentify for Philip Morris International. One has to at least wonder whether this acquisition could be an effort by the longtime tobacco industry partner to circumvent independence requirements prohibiting the appointment of a company making more than 20% of annual turnover with the tobacco industry.
What’s more, the track and trace scheme is far from the only European tobacco control measure which Big Tobacco has meddled with. The tobacco industry also expended huge sums and effort to try and derail other European government measures, such as plain packaging. The WHO and non-governmental organizations have hailed plain packaging initiatives as critical to efforts to reduce the appeal of smoking, and a 2016 EU directive gave member states scope to expand on health warning requirements to include plain packaging standards.
Tobacco industry players have responded to growing calls for plain packaging with an barely disguised misinformation campaign. For example, research conducted by consultancy group Europe Economics, and commissioned by Japan Tobacco International (JTI), purported to show that plain packaging initiatives have had no significant impact on smoking in the UK, despite independent studies and real world examples proving otherwise.
Big Tobacco has a long and dark history of manipulating public policy in the single-minded pursuit of financial gain, meaning that the recent research revealing its significant impact on the Netherlands’ National Prevention Agreement sadly comes as no surprise. How many examples of deception and interference do European policymakers have to see before there is a genuine crack down?