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Watchdog sees fault in EU Commission tobacco contacts

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The European ombudsman has made an initial finding that the European Commission’s failure to be fully transparent about its meetings with the tobacco industry constitutes maladministration and is demanding an answer within three months.

In a letter to the Commission made public on Tuesday, ombudsman Emily O’Reilly shared preliminary conclusions from her team’s inquiry into EU executive contacts with tobacco interest representatives in 2020 and 2021, a follow-up to an earlier study concluded in 2016.

The ombudsman had advised then that the entire Commission should take up the proactive transparency policy of health and food safety directorate-general DG Sante. Apart from improvements at the tax and customs unit, this had not happened, the letter said.

Such transparency is required by the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) of the World Health Organisation, which is designed to protect present and future generations from the harmful consequences of tobacco consumption.

“My preliminary view is that the absence of a whole-of-Commission approach to complying with the obligations stemming from the FCTC constitutes maladministration,” the ombudsman wrote.

EU institution contacts with lobbyists have come under increased scrutiny after a cash-for-influence scandal hit the European Parliament, two of whose members have been charged with corruption and money laundering in Belgium.

The ombudsman found a deficiency in record-keeping and a failure to keep and make available minutes on all Commission meetings with tobacco interest representatives.

The ombudsman also questioned whether Commission officials were limiting their interactions with the tobacco industry only to those that were “strictly necessary.”

O’Reilly wrote that she expected a reply, which would be published on the ombudsman website, within three months.

The ombudsman has strong moral power, although its recommendations are not legally binding.

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