EU Parliament spotlighting Commission’s shadowy dealings with the tobacco industry and Dentsu Tracking

At a critical moment for the EU’s public health agenda, MEPs held a plenary session debate on 8 February to spotlight the European Commission’s opaque engagement with Big Tobacco and press for much-needed change.

The debate, devoted to the Dentsu Tracking affair which is shaping up to be a serious conflict-of-interest scandal at the heart of the bloc’s response to its growing illicit tobacco trade, included strong contributions from MEPs Anne-Sophie Pelletier, René Repasi and François Thiollet.

Taking place just days before the launch of the World Health Organisation’s Panama-hosted MOP3 summit – whose Day 1 bulletin included analysis from leading tobacco control researcher Dr. Allen Gallagher, from the University of Bath, on the tobacco industry’s manipulation of global track and trace efforts through its Codentify system, later rebranded Inexto – the Parliamentary debate has helped raise crucial awareness of this manipulation’s harmful impact in the EU.

Commission remaining evasive amid Hoffman-Dentsu probe

Launched in 2019, the EU’s track and trace system to tackle cigarette smuggling has since come under fire over Dentsu Tracking’s selection as core operator. As Pelletier highlighted during her intervention at the debate, Dentsu’s well-established Big Tobacco links – including through inheriting elements of the Codentify technology developed by Philip Morris International (PMI) – place the EU system in direct violation of the WHO ITP Protocol’s industry independence requirements.

Moreover, as François Thiollet and René Repasi both emphasised, the shocking lack of transparency in the Commission’s selection process – Dentsu was appointed without a publicly available contract – has added to concerns over the EU executive’s defense of public health. Adding to existing civil society scrutiny, politicians have increasingly tuned into the tobacco industry’s excessive influence over the consultation process for the EU track and trace system. The exposure of the Jan Hoffman affair in late 2022 shed new light on the “collusion between the Commission and the powerful tobacco industry,” as framed by Pelletier at the recent debate.

A former DG SANTE official who worked on tobacco traceability during the EU system’s development, Hoffman’s recruitment by Dentsu shortly after the company was awarded the contract has raised serious conflict-of-interest questions, with 38 MEPs backing a Parliamentary question to the Commission in late November. Beyond pointing to unanswered questions on Hoffman’s potential role in Dentsu’s selection, Pelletier equally capitalised on the debate to press the Commission on Hoffman’s then-boss, former Deputy Head of Unit in DG SANTE Filip Borowski, notably questioning Borowski’s sudden job change after initial revelations about the Hoffman-Dentsu affair.

Yet the Commission continues to evade responsibility, with Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson refusing to sincerely engage with MEPs’ concerns in both her opening and closing addresses at the debate, instead choosing to echo the Commission’s refrain on its total commitment to transparency and industry-independent track and trace.

Industry interference stalling EU tobacco control agenda

Yet European Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly has made the fallaciousness of the Commission’s official line abundantly clear, confirming her finding of “maladministration” in regards to the Commission’s transparency efforts with tobacco lobbyists last December.

Citing a concerning lack of minute-taking and necessity checks for the Commission’s meetings with Big Tobacco representatives, the Ombudsman’s conclusions notably cast doubt on the EC’s compliance with the World Health Organisation (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) – namely the article 5.3 obligation to protect public health policies ‘from commercial and other vested interests of the tobacco industry.” In response to O’Reilly’s less-than-flattering assessment, the Commission has announced the launch of an investigation into its exposure to Big Tobacco lobbyists, which the Ombudsman will follow up on in June.

Given the Belgian EU Presidency’s strong focus on public health, the EU executive will have little margin for error. Addressing MEPs recently on the Commission’s weak progress in implementing Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan (EBCP) – which includes the headline-grabbing goal of creating a tobacco-free generation by 2040 – Belgian Health Minister Frank Vandenbroucke lamented that this vital strategy had been “undermined by powerful industry interests at the cost of Europeans’ health.” Indeed, as Thiollet reminded during the Dentsu debate, tobacco consumption remains the EU’s primary cause of premature death, killing nearly 700,000 people every year.

According to the Smoke Free Partnership, this industry interference has notably caused the delay of the Commission’s tobacco control framework revision – a key EBCP commitment. Originally slated for 2022, the Tobacco Products Directive (TPD) revision has been inexplicably pushed to 2025, while the Tobacco Taxation Directive (TTD) revision still lacks a target date. This policy stagnation has severely hindered the bloc’s tobacco control efforts while playing into the hands of a tobacco industry keen to avoid higher taxes and retain its grip on the EU’s ineffective track and trace system.

Time for action has come

Encouragingly, the European Parliament shows no signs of letting up in its fight to defend its citizens from Big Tobacco’s commercial interests. As Pelletier confirmed during the Parliamentary debate on Dentsu Tracking and in an email sent to high-level MOP participants underlining yet again her concerns about Dentsu and about the European tracking system, an MEP Tobacco Working Group that she co-chairs will be presenting the conclusions of its white paper in Strasbourg on 26 February.

Informed by collaborations with leading anti-tobacco NGOs and research institutions such as the University of Bath’s TCRG and the Smoke-Free Partnership, the white paper’s key policy proposals for the TPD-TTD revision include launching an investigation into the Dentsu-Hoffman case, strictly implementing WHO FCTC lobbying transparency requirements, pushing forward the twin revision proposals to summer 2024 and putting in place delivery quotas as well as an industry-independent traceability scheme. In progressing these crucial recommendations, MEPs will likely be able to count on support from the newly-confirmed French Government, given Thomas Cazenave’s return as Minister Delegate for Public Accounts and Frédéric Valletoux’s promotion to Minister Delegate for Health and Prevention.

Presented last November, Valletoux’s legislative proposal for the domestic application of the ITP protocol notably calls for the imposition of consumption-based country quotas to counter the tobacco industry’s international oversupplying of smaller, low-tax markets with licit product designed to trickle into high-tax markets like France. In a meeting late last year, Cazenave and Valletoux agreed to pursue this legislation at EU level, with the latter stressing the need for a bloc-wide approach to effectively tackle the illicit tobacco trade.

With February’s COP10/MOP3 summits in Panama putting the global spotlight on the tobacco industry’s disruption of public health policies, the MEP Tobacco Working Group has taken action at the right moment and will hopefully accelerate their mission to curb Big Tobacco’s influence within the Commission over the decisive months to come.

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