A few weeks ago, the official journal of the European Union published the new tobacco products directive, following nearly two years of legislative procedure. As a representative of employers at the European economic and social committee, I had the privilege of serving as rapporteur for the opinion on the directive, in which I argued, and continue to maintain, that health protection should take precedence over any other financial consideration.
In other words, health comes first. This view was reflected in the opinion, which called on the authorities, both European and national, to continue their work to prevent smoking, boosting information campaigns and awareness-raising schemes, focusing in particular on preventing minors from starting to smoke.
"The aim is to protect health through effective measures that do not cause unnecessary economic damage"
While advocating the need for further progress on health protection, I also called on the commission to ensure that the directive strikes at least some balance between this principle and the preservation of jobs and the economic contribution made by the tobacco sector in Europe. It should not be forgotten that each year, this industry adds around €100bn in taxes to member states' coffers and provides employment for 1.4 million people.
The aim here is not to weigh up the relative merits of tobacco and health. The debate cannot be reduced to such a simplistic equation. The aim is to protect health through effective measures that do not cause unnecessary economic damage. This is the legislator's duty. Ultimately, what is needed are clearly defined targets and clearly defined measures to be put in place to meet those targets, while also bearing in mind the potential damage each one might cause, in an attempt to mitigate such impacts or prevent them altogether.
Some of the measures the directive recommends are subjective, as they are not based on scientific evidence proving their benefits to health. In fact, and in the light of what is happening in other countries where similar measures have been applied, the directive could have unintended consequences that jeopardise consumer safety and the wealth that this sector generates for the European economy. The new directive also contains measures that could result in overregulation, in direct conflict with the European principle of moving towards 'better regulation'.
The directive could lead to an increase in illicit tobacco sales, which already stand at around 10 per cent in Europe, reducing states' tax revenues and having serious consequences for those working in the sector. This is to say nothing of the consumer-safety risks, because such products do not undergo health or quality checks, and because we would be allowing minors to access tobacco products more easily.
We are convinced that the over-regulation inherent in this directive, with its countless restrictions and prohibitions, contravenes the basic principles that should govern the work of the community legislator. Extensive use of delegated and implementing acts may result in secondary legislation that proposes measures and adopts decisions, both now and in the future, without taking real account of the opinion of experts and of the member states themselves.
Ultimately, the directive may not achieve its health objectives, which would have serious repercussions in economic terms and with regard to breaches of the fundamental rights and freedoms of people working in the sector. It is becoming increasingly obvious, however, that it will also not be possible to achieve the second major objective that has been set: harmonisation of the internal market. This will be difficult to achieve if member states go further than is stipulated in the directive when transposing it into their national law.
We are already starting to see this in processes such as the public consultations that some countries, Ireland and the United Kingdom, for example, have announced, to decide whether or not to include standardised packaging, which would also set a serious precedent for other regulated sectors such as foodstuffs and spirit drinks. This could lead to the European Union having as many regulations for tobacco products as it does member states, which would lead to considerable legal uncertainty for the sector and would render meaningless the objective of harmonisation promoted by the directive itself, with all the implications that this would have for trade relations with third parties.