#Tobacco lobby impeding Swiss public health policy progress
November 28, 2019
A new report by the Federal Commission for the Prevention of Tobacco Use has slammed Switzerland’s tobacco control measures, blaming heavy industry lobbying for watering down Swiss public health policies. It’s a problem that has left the country lagging behind on regulations, particularly regarding electronic cigarettes and other vaping or heated tobacco products, and prompting commission president Lucrezia Meier-Schatz to call for a ‘far more restrictive approach’ to policy in the future.
Perhaps it isn’t surprising that Switzerland is behind the times when it comes to tobacco control—industry titans Philip Morris International (PMI), British American Tobacco (BAT) and Japan Tobacco International (JTI) all have global or regional headquarters in the country. These firms employ thousands of people and – according to a 2017 report from KPMG – contribute $6.4bn annually to the Swiss economy. With so much at stake, little wonder, then, that the Swiss government is reluctant to upset the applecart.
Trailing the pack
To make matters worse, despite being the seat of the World Health Organisation (WHO), Switzerland has yet to ratify the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), signed by the Swiss government in 2004 – signatories are granted a seat as observers to conferences without having to abide by the provisions. Fifteen years on, Switzerland shamefully remains one of only thirteen countries that have failed to implement the framework, among them tobacco-producing nations such as the United States and Argentina.
The Swiss Parliament argues that it can only ratify international conventions once it has adapted its own national legislation to suit—something which requires the drafting of new bills which are then submitted to parliament for review. Problem is, a number of bills have already been drafted—only for them to fail to meet the conditions for ratification by parliamentarians who are sensitive to the tobacco industry’s contribution to their confederation’s economy.
Making matters far worse, Swiss lawmakers have actually been caught lobbying on behalf of PMI. A ‘Temps Present’ expose last year revealed that a number of parliamentarians were actively lobbying on behalf of tobacco companies—including PMI—looking to block or weaken treaty provisions. The Swiss government’s intransigence is all the more embarrassing as in October 2018 Geneva hosted two global tobacco treaty conferences during which delegates from 180 nations discussed measures to reduce smoking and to eradicate the illegal trade in tobacco products.
Subverting the supply chain
While Switzerland may be a particularly egregious example, the rest of Europe isn’t exactly on the front foot when honouring its FCTC commitments, either. A particular flashpoint has become the implementation of official systems – so-called track-and-trace schemes – designed to monitor every stage of the production and distribution of tobacco products. Countries are mandated to implement and manage such track-and-trace systems under the FCTC’s Protocol to Eliminate Trade in Tobacco Products (Protocol).
The first working group on implementing the FCTC’s track-and-trace provisions finally took place between 26 and 28 November in Panama – more than a year after the working group was announced – but it’s feared the EU won’t be able to announce much progress. The European bloc started to roll out such a system in May, but it’s come under fire for not being independent from the tobacco industry, which has sought to pervert the system for its own ends. The WHO, alongside public health NGOs, have linked this scheme to the tobacco giant’s interest in maintaining the parallel trade in tobacco products, which makes them wary of control systems that could help convict the true culprits.
The Protocol’s guidance is clear: tobacco monitoring systems must remain completely independent of interference from the tobacco industry– from the generation of unique identifiers to the storage of traceability data, while State parties must be in control of the systems. However, the EU’s choice of providers to implement its track-and-trace system has raised more than a few questions.
For one thing, Japanese giant Dentsu Aegis was appointed to manage the EU system’s data storage, without going through the Commission’s usual public tender process. Dentsu’s unconventional appointment is particularly troubling given that Dentsu has ties to the tobacco industry. In fact, the company has a long history of working for Japan Tobacco International and acquired Blue Infinity in 2017, a company whose track-and-trace system is based on tobacco industry Trojan horse Codentify.
Codentify was originally developed by PMI before being passed to a third-party company, Inexto—which is also run by former tobacco industry executives. Academics, policymakers and public health bodies alike have voiced fears over whether Codentify will even be capable of delivering the protective measures required. The system uses commercially available equipment without protection against code ‘cloning’ or ‘recycling’. Codes printed without security features such as tax stamps are also vulnerable to tampering.
Setting an example
Dentsu’s involvement is just one of a number of problematic elements which call into question the EU system’s compliance with FCTC guidelines. Other companies charged with implementing the scheme, such as Atos and its subsidiary Worldline, also have longstanding ties with the tobacco industry. When some member states were unable to clinch contracts with ID issuers in time for the system’s official rollout last May, the European Commission allowed member states who had failed to appoint their operator to appoint a provider from any other member state on a provisional basis – an exemption that only serves to highlight the weakness at the heart of the bloc’s system.
It’s a catalogue of events that collectively shows how even the most committed of policies can be weakened to the point of failure if not implemented robustly enough. A viable track-and-trace system capable of successfully combating the black market for tobacco has been the holy grail of public health NGOs for decades. And yet, despite global consensus, the implementation of the protocol has been dogged by problems and undermined by the tobacco lobby. If Switzerland and the EU aren’t complying with the FCTC, what lesson is the rest of the world supposed to take?