More transparency needed in EU tobacco dealings

Written by Rebecca Taylor on 11 September 2015

Tobacco lobbying would be far less effective if it followed the FCTC guidelines and was more transparent, says former MEP Rebecca Taylor.

Tobacco kills several hundred thousand Europeans every year and the interests of the tobacco industry are in direct opposition to the protection of public health. This is recognised in article 5.3 of the World Health Organisation framework convention on tobacco control (FCTC), which refers to the protection of public health policies from the tobacco industry. It is therefore understandable that tobacco-related policymaking attracts attention and raise concerns in a way other policy areas do not.

A good policymaker should hear from a wide range of stakeholders, even if they have already formed some views on the matter in hand. While tobacco products remain legal, tobacco companies remain a stakeholder, albeit one demanding a far greater level of care and caution than others. 

There are some who believe that any contact with the tobacco industry compromises a policymaker, but I don't. I am living proof it is possible to meet tobacco companies without falling under their influence - I did so while an MEP. Yet my voting record clearly shows I am a strong supporter of tobacco control. I was even classified as 'hostile' in the leaked Phillip Morris MEP mapping revealed in French newspaper Le Parisien. 


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I did however follow the WHO FCTC article 5.3 guidelines. The focus of these guidelines is on ensuring transparency and accountability, avoiding conflicts of interest, and not giving preferential treatment to the tobacco industry. 

This meant that I accepted some, but not all meetings with tobacco company representatives, which were limited to 30 minutes, took place in public, always involved me being accompanied by at least one staff member who took notes of the meeting, and that they were listed on my website detailing date, people involved and matters discussed. 

I actually listed all tobacco directive meetings on my website including (but not limited to) tobacco companies, cancer charities, medical societies, packaging companies, electronic cigarette manufacturers and national regulators. Listing only tobacco company meetings could have looked rather odd and greater transparency can never be bad.

However, despite knowing something about tobacco lobbying through my professional and academic background, some things still surprised me. These included the sheer number of tobacco industry lobbyists and the existence of apparently unconnected organisations whose positions were remarkably similar to the tobacco industry. Whether this was proxy lobbying I am unsure, but the few I met, I found unconvincing. 

There were stories of bad practice, including tobacco lobbyists handing MEP staff proposed amendments in hard copy with no indication of provenance, and inviting MEPs to lavish dinners. Needless to say, I never experienced such behaviour, but given my position on tobacco control and stated compliance with FCTC guidelines, this is unsurprising. 

And that is precisely the point; such tactics would be much more difficult and probably far less effective were all involved following FCTC or similar guidelines, especially those relating to transparency. Some things simply do not look very good at all in the bright light of day, so if we shine a light...

About the author

Rebecca Taylor (UK) is a former Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe group MEP. Rebecca currently works for a cancer charity, but is writing here in a personal capacity

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