Thursday, 25 October 2012

Scandal, intrigue, tobacco and unanswered questions

As some people may already be aware (it`s been reported in UK national media and international media like the Wall Street Journal), the European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection, John Dalli from Malta resigned his post last week in the wake of an alleged dodgy lobbying incident involving the tobacco industry. I will try to summarise the events as concisely as possible, which might not be easy.

Mr Dalli was asked to resign by Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso on 16 October 2012 following an investigation by OLAF, the EU anti fraud office concerning a Maltese entrepreneur known to Mr Dalli who was allegedly acting as a middleman for a Swedish tobacco company. The Maltese entrepreneur was said to have been preparing to offer money to Mr Dalli in order to obtain meetings between the Commissioner and the tobacco company to influence a forthcoming EU law on tobacco products. The offer was never made and it was the tobacco company concerned Swedish Match, which made a complaint to the Commission which led to the OLAF investigation.

As part of  his health and consumer protection role, Mr Dalli had led Commission work on a new EU law on tobacco products, which was rumoured to include strict measures like plain packaging for cigarettes. However, the incidents relating to the potential dodgy lobbying that never happened are said by OLAF and the European Commission not to have affected the work done on the draft new tobacco products law, as they occurred after the final draft was completed by Mr Dalli's staff.

Mr Dalli was not accused of having accepted or even been offered the alleged bribe; the OLAF report instead claimed that he knew his name was being used in vain. Mr Dalli has said that he has never seen the OLAF report, but was read the conclusions on 16 October after which he was asked to resign and did so verbally in front of Commission President Barroso and two witnesses.

Coincidentally, within 48 hours of Mr Dalli's resignation, the offices of several Brussels based public health NGOs active on tobacco control were burgled. During that burglary, only computers and documents belonging to staff working on tobacco control were stolen. Evidence indicates that the burglary was a well organised professional job.

This week, the Chair of the Supervisory Board of OLAF resigned, initially thought to be related to the Dalli investigation, but now OLAF has confirmed that it was unrelated.

Whether Mr Dalli is guilty of misconduct or not (this is about as clear as mud right now), what is of great concern is that this may now delay the (already delayed) new law on tobacco products. This law is needed to upgrade Europe`s fight against tobacco, which kills over 600,000 EU citizens each year and causes long term ill-health in many more.

Mr Barroso, the President of the European Commission and Mr Secovic, the Commissioner temporarily taking over Mr Dalli`s responsibilities at DG SANCO (Health & Consumer Protection), have both said that the tobacco products directive is a top priority and will only be delayed as long as it takes to get a permanent replacement for Mr Dalli. Malta has nominated Mr Tonio Borg as Mr Dalli`s replacement and Mr Borg will attend a hearing to assess his suitability for the role in the European Parliament on 13 November 2012.

So far, so murky (or should that be smoky?!). There are a lot of unanswered questions and missing pieces of information including:

- What is the "circumstantial evidence" that OLAF found that indicates Mr Dalli was aware of the potential dodgy lobbying? (NB Mr Dalli denies knowledge of the plan to bribe him)

- Why was Mr Dalli not allowed to see the report accusing him of misconduct?

- What delay will the tobacco products law be subject to?

- How can we be sure that the tobacco products law will not be watered down from the version that Mr Dalli`s staff had prepared (which was rumoured to be very strong)?

- Who could believe that a Health Commissioner could (even if they were so persuaded) credibly change the draft version of a new tobacco products law to make it favourable to the tobacco industry? (NB Mr Dalli`s position on tobacco control was considered very strong by public health activists)

In addition to the need to further protect public health from the scurge of tobacco, the whole affair with unanswered questions and vital information withheld from public view (and from the view of the European Parliament, which has a role in appointing Commissioners!), does not give a good image of the EU institutions.

A friend working in EU affairs informed me that his Mother raised the Dalli affair with him after seeing various media reports. Her view?

"I don`t know anything about the tobacco law, but all this secrecy and cover-up in the newspapers bothers me. Why can`t people be told what he (Mr Dalli) did wrong?. It seems that big companies are getting away with a lot and I don`t like it!"

So, worrying developments for Europe and for public health in Europe. Not good : (

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