Health News

Scientists say tobacco firm skews EU policymaking

LONDON (Reuters) - Scientists said British American Tobacco has teamed up with companies in other industries such as oil to influence European Union policies in favor of business interests at the expense of public health.

Researchers writing in the Public Library of Science (PLoS) Medicine journal said they had evidence that BAT, the world’s second-largest cigarette maker, had since 1995 led a network of companies from the chemical, oil and food sectors to shape the EU’s impact assessment system which analyses policy implications.

“BAT and its corporate allies have fundamentally altered the way in which all EU policy is made,” Katherine Smith of Britain’s Bath University wrote in the study, which was funded by the Smoke Free Partnership campaign and the charity Cancer Research UK.

“This increases the likelihood that the EU will produce policies that advance the interests of major corporations, including those that produce products damaging to health, rather than in the interests of its citizens.”

EU officials were often unaware of the magnitude of BAT’s influence, the researchers wrote, possibly because the corporate campaign used third parties such as think tanks and consultants.

Smith and colleagues at Bath and Edinburgh Universities analyzed more than 700 internal BAT documents with information on BAT’s attempts to influence European regulatory reform, and interviewed relevant European policymakers and lobbyists.

They found BAT created a policy network of several large companies involved in marketing products that can damage public health or the environment, to promote a lobbying campaign to alter EU policymaking rules.

The campaign succeeded in engineering specific changes to EU policy, including a call for the burden of regulation on businesses to be eased, and ultimately gave rise to the current system of business-oriented impact assessment, Smith wrote.

She said this could stall or even prevent future EU public health regulations.

A spokeswoman for BAT rejected the study’s findings and accused its authors of “suggesting that only people who agree with their own point of view should be allowed to voice them”.

“The EU invites all interested parties to submit their views before making new policies and we are happy to share our views, as we believe the best policies are the ones which take into account a range of positions,” she said in a statement.

The European Commission declined to comment.

Smoking is the biggest preventable cause of death in the world, according to the World Health Organization, killing more than 5 million people a year. A report by the World Lung Foundation last August said smoking could kill 1 billion people this century if trends hold.

The PLoS study noted that by law, virtually all new policies proposed in the EU must undergo an impact assessment -- a review of the potential economic, social and environmental consequences.

The outcome of impact assessments is heavily influenced by the method used, the researchers said, with assessment tools focusing on economic impacts tending to favor regulation which increases business profits, even if such policies could undermine public health.

The study is availablehere

Editing by David Holmes and Erica Billingham