Is Big Tobacco up to its dirty tricks again? A murky episode in Brussels suggests its questionable approach to law-making might not have gone out with the European smoking ban.
There isn't a European smoking ban.
Maltese politician John Dalli was the EU health commissioner charged with implementing a new tobacco control directive. It would have forced large pictures of smoking-related diseases on cigarette packets, restricted sales of smokeless tobacco products and e-cigarettes and stepped up the ban on snus, a €500m-a-year cigarette smoking substitute gum banned everywhere in the EU except Sweden.
Snus is not an easy product to describe to those who haven't seen it. 'Fine-cut tobacco in a teabag-like pouch' isn't a bad description, but no one who knows what they're talking about would ever think of describing it as 'gum'.
Before the directive could be passed, however, Dalli was called to the European Commission and given 30 minutes to read a final report by Olaf, the EU anti-corruption police. The report's contents remain under wraps, but Dalli promptly resigned, under pressure from commission president Jose Manuel Barroso, 30 minutes later.
The report remains "under wraps" because—as was reported last week—"only the Maltese attorney general can give access to the Olaf report because it now forms part of a Maltese criminal investigation."
The background to the Olaf report was a dossier provided to the commission by lobbyists for Swedish Match, which makes snus and pipe tobacco. It is claimed that Silvio Zammit, an associate of Dalli and a Maltese mayor and owner of a seaside kiosk on the island, solicited an initial €10m, with another €50m to follow, from the company in return for influencing Dalli to make his directive less hostile to snus.
Or, to be specific, to repeal the ban on snus—a ban which is scientifically unjustifiable. Private Eye could do its readers a favour by looking into the forces that have led to it being banned and what the health implications have been (see, for example, Clive Bates' recent post—and note the discussion between numerous health experts below the line.)
Zammit claims he works as a legitimate lobbyist, that he was approached by Swedish Match and that he is not guilty of soliciting any money. Olaf admits that the evidence against Dalli is "circumstantial"...
"Unambiguous" circumstantial evidence.
...and limited to the possibility that he might have known about the payment.
Which is a sackable offence.
Dalli, who emphatically denies all charges, says he has been stitched up by a tobacco industry that didn't appreciate his hard line.
It is not unusual for the accused to insist he is innocent of the charges against him. Barroso has rightly described Dalli's conspiracy theories as "incomprehensible".
Olaf itself may not be entirely objective. The European Commission has signed a series of agreements with the fag companies, leading to €2.15bn of funding being funnelled to the commission—some of it filtering down to Olaf to fund the fight against cigarette smuggling.
Oh, come on. So the EC gets money out of the tobacco industry to fight the illicit trade and Olaf is funded by the EC, so this means that Olaf is somehow compromised by tobacco funding? Is it really being suggested that the funding of Olaf depends on the contents of the tobacco products directive? This is just ridiculous. It's another taxpayer-funded EU institution amongst many other taxpayer-funded EU institutions. And if the EU is pro-tobacco, I am a banana.
The tobacco lobby has long had it in for Dalli and his ominous directive which should have been launched last month.
What's more, Barroso was also uncomfortable with Dalli's tough policy measures—supposedly on legal grounds—and told him so. His secretary general, Catherine Day, repeatedly delayed launching the new directive even though it was finalised. What has left many EU observers blinking in disbelief is the skimpiness of Olaf's work. Five months into what he called "a comprehensive investigation", Olaf boss Giovanni Kessler admitted finding no proof that compromised Dalli.
No he didn't. What he said was that "there is no conclusive evidence" that Dalli "was involved as instigator or mastermind." He went on to say that there are "a number of unambiguous circumstantial pieces of evidence ... that he was indeed aware of the requests of the Maltese entrepreneur and that this person was using his name and position ... He was aware of a person close to him asking for money from a company in order to use his influence on the commissioner to try to attempt to change the policy of the commission."
Whether this is "proof" or not is for the courts to decide, but clearly there is evidence and what he has been accused of is undoubtedly a sackable offence.
Staffers at the commission's health and consumer directorate, Sanco, emphatically told Olaf investigators that the idea of Dalli ever compromising his treasured directive was incredible.
Dalli's friends are defending him? Emphatically? Then he must be innocent!
Word from Brussels is that the writs are just about to start flying.
Bring 'em on. Let's get to the bottom of this. I'm as keen as anyone to hear the evidence against Dalli, and I'm also keen to hear what evidence there is that "Big Tobacco" is "up to its dirty tricks" because I don't see any evidence for it in Private Eye.