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Sarah Boseley, health editor, Friday 26th October 2012 11:49
Leading doctors are calling on the government to lean on the European commission to press ahead with the promised tough new tobacco products directive, in spite of the resignation of the EU health commissioner and a growing scandal in Brussels around alleged tobacco industry influence.
The commissioner John Dalli has revealed that he was forced to resign by the European commission president, José Manuel Barroso, following an investigation by the EU anti-fraud office Olaf into a complaint by a Swedish tobacco company. Swedish Match, which makes the smokeless tobacco product "snus", which is banned in the EU, alleged that a compatriot of Dalli's had offered to arrange meetings with the commissioner for money. Dalli denied meeting any lobbyist and said that the Maltese entrepreneur Silvio Zammit had been approached by the company. No money had changed hands.
Dalli has consistently denied any knowledge of the payment requests and has threatened legal action over how the case was handled. Olaf said it had no proof that he was behind the requests. Zammit has also denied any wrongdoing.
In a letter to the Guardian on Friday, Sir Richard Thompson, president of the Royal College of Physicians, Dr Lindsey Davies, the president of the Faculty of Public Health, and Dr Clare Gerada, chair of council of the Royal College of General Practitioners, call on the government to use its influence with Brussels amid concern that delays in appointing a new health commissioner could in effect kill the tobacco products directive, which may not get approval before new elections in 2014.
"The directive seeks to tackle head-on the industry's attempts to enlist young people as smokers by introducing graphic warnings and banning flavouring and other enhancements," says the letter.
"It would also extend the ban on smokeless tobacco 'snus' to e-cigarettes and includes the possibility of requiring plain packaging.
"We call on the UK government to encourage the European commission to support the directive's continued progress rather than blocking it in the wake of recent developments."
In an article in the Lancet published on Thursday, experts say that delaying the directive would be a victory for the tobacco industry at the expense of public health and would raise serious questions about EU decision-making that would need to be investigated.
Martin McKee of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Paul Belcher of the Royal College of Physicians and Monika Kosinska of the European Public Health Alliance (EPHA) say a combination of strange events has set alarm bells ringing. They point to the break-in two days after Dalli's resignation at offices belonging to anti-smoking groups in Brussels including those of the EPHA, where laptops containing material relating to the directive were stolen. In a sophisticated operation, the burglars are believed to have abseiled from the roof of the building, disabling movement sensors, they write.
"In a further twist it was revealed that a senior Olaf official had previously opposed plain cigarette packaging, on the grounds that it might encourage counterfeiting, an argument favoured by the tobacco industry but refuted by anti-tobacco activists who note that plain packs will have the same security markings currently used to distinguish genuine from counterfeit products," they say.
"This combination of events has, inevitably, set alarm bells ringing. While the truth will emerge eventually, it may be too late for the revised tobacco products directive."
But the directive could and should be taken forward as planned, they say. The Maltese government has already nominated Tonio Borg to replace Dalli as health commissioner. "The only beneficiaries of delay are the tobacco companies and any such delay will raise serious questions about whose interests the EU commission is promoting."