EU health commissioner resigns over anti-fraud case

BRUSSELS Tue Oct 16, 2012 2:29pm EDT

John Dalli, European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Policy, speaks at a news conference at the EC headquarters in Brussels July 17, 2012. REUTERS/Eric Vidal

John Dalli, European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Policy, speaks at a news conference at the EC headquarters in Brussels July 17, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Eric Vidal

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BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union's top health official resigned on Tuesday after an anti-fraud investigation connected him to an attempt to influence EU tobacco legislation, the European Commission said.

The EU's anti-fraud office OLAF found that a Maltese businessman had tried to use his contacts with Commissioner John Dalli, who is Maltese, for financial gain by offering to influence future EU legislation on tobacco products.

"The OLAF report did not find any conclusive evidence of the direct participation of Mr Dalli but did consider that he was aware of these events," the Commission said in a statement, saying that Dalli had resigned with immediate effect.

Dalli has rejected the OLAF's findings, the statement said.

The statement said it was up to Maltese judicial authorities to decide if they wanted to pursue the case.

The OLAF investigation followed a complaint by snuff-and- cigar-maker Swedish Match in May 2012, saying that the businessman - who was not named - sought financial advantages in return for influencing Commission proposals, particularly on the EU's current export ban on snus, a Swedish-style moist snuff.

"It's unpleasant that these things happen. We can only hope that the process going forward to create a new directive is transparent and honest," Swedish Match spokesman Fredrik Peyron said.

"We don't know all the details that have emerged in this report. But if he has been involved in this it is reasonable (that Dalli resign)."

Snus, which is Swedish Match's main cash cow, is banned in the EU for health reasons, except in Sweden which negotiated a permanent exemption in its EU accession talks in the 1990s.

Swedish Match hopes the European Commission will lift its ban on snus, which is put under the lip, mostly in pouches. The Swedish government has been pushing for a lifting of the ban, saying the health risks are not proportionate to the ban.

Last year, the Commission said it would review the EU export ban on snus as part of a wider planned overhaul of EU tobacco regulations.

Dalli - a former Maltese finance minister - took the decision to resign in order to defend his reputation and that of the Commission, the statement added.

In an internal email to staff seen by Reuters, Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said Slovak Commissioner for Administration and Inter-Institutional Relations, Maros Sefcovic, would take over Dalli's portfolio until a new Maltese commissioner is appointed.

(Reporting by Charlie Dunmore, additional reporting by Christopher Jungstedt in Stockholm, editing by Luke Baker and Michael Roddy)

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