Dalligate did not derail Tobacco Products Directive – Tonio Borg

‘Strong possibility’ that tobacco directive will be approved before MEP elections

Borg - 'We could still be in time to pass this law'
Borg - 'We could still be in time to pass this law'

The possibility that the controversial Tobacco Products Directive will be approved before the next European elections in 2014, when a new Commission is expected to take office, "is very high" European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection Tonio Borg has told MaltaToday.

Last week, the Council of Health Ministers agreed to a general approach on a revised draft EU tobacco directive aimed at making tobacco products less attractive by strengthening the rules on how tobacco products can be manufactured, presented and sold.

But since the eruption of Dalligate, many were the MEPs - former commissioner John Dalli himself among them - who claimed that Dalli's resignation in October 2012 had been a coup by the tobacco lobby that wanted to derail the tobacco directive.

Dalli, a former PN leadership contender and long-standing finance minister, served as EU health commissioner until he had to resign over allegations that he was aware of a €60 million bribery attempt by one of his political canvassers.

But according to Dalli's successor, Dalligate did not derail the directive. "The directive was not derailed, to the point that it was passed through the European Commission within six weeks," Borg says of the new anti-smoking rules.

The risk of the directive not being approved during this legislature grows higher the closer May 2014 gets - the month when MEP elections take place. But Borg insists they are on the right track for the directive to be approved by MEPs before then.

Sitting in what used to be John Dalli's office, Tonio Borg speaks passionately about his resolve to do everything it took from his end to see that the directive was not delayed.

Borg says he never held meetings with tobacco lobbyists and speaks highly of José Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, who personally asked Dalli to vacate his office within a matter of 15 minutes. "With his help, I managed to carry out and complete the inter-service consultation by 19 December. No time was lost in the launching of the directive."

He did however meet two Swedish ministers who visited him in an attempt to have the EU ban on snus, the smokeless tobacco, lifted. The visit proved to be unsuccessful.

Borg was appointed commissioner on 28 November. Between then and 19 December he pushed forward the directive for consultation, presented it before the College of Commissioners and had it approved.

The law then went to the European Parliament and the European Council. In the case of the EP, a rapporteur was tasked with preparing an ad hoc report on the tobacco directive, which must be presented to the plenary in September. The Maltese commissioner has however pledged that from his end, he will push for the directive to be approved during this legislature. "The health ministers' agreement to a common approach has given us courage it can be approved before the end of this legislature. And I am convinced that with the necessary effort, we will get there," he says.

He however pointed out that if the legislation is not approved, it would be neither his nor John Dalli's fault.

"A number of governments and states were against the tobacco directive, arguing that it could cost jobs. For me, the improvement in health would do more than enough compensate for those losses."

The target is to reduce the number of smokers by 2.5 million over the next five years. Conceding that the tobacco industry may indeed receive a blow, governments on the other hand would be saving millions in health-related costs while ex-smokers would end up with more money in their pockets, possibly investing in other sectors.

"Every year, 700,000 people die from smoking-related causes across the European Union... the directive is balanced but ambitious, with the non-negotiable point being that tobacco products should look like tobacco and taste like tobacco," Borg says.

He adds that the Irish presidency worked hard to see that the Council of Ministers would reach a compromise on the proposal: "I worked very closely with the Irish health minister, whose brother died a chain smoker."

The proposal, although slightly watered down, did "nothing" to undermine the directive's ethos, where a tobacco product should resemble a tobacco product.

Across the 27-nation bloc [28 as of recently], 90% of the smokers started smoking under 25; 75% were not even 18 years of age. "I myself started smoking at 16, although I have now long quit smoking," Borg adds.

Borg is however steadfast against the use of characterising flavours for tobacco. While critics of the tobacco directive argued that flavours such as menthol, vanilla and chocolate should be permitted, the health commissioner said that people smoking menthol cigarettes end up inhaling more smoke.

Asked whether he was approached to contest the next European elections, Borg said he was "fully concentrated" on his work as commissioner, which amongst other bones of contention included the maligned Tobacco Products Directive that killed Dalli's career in the EC.

Pressed to say whether he was interested in contesting the next European elections, which will see former Labour prime minister Alfred Sant contest, Borg reiterated that he was "concentrating" on his work but that nobody had approached him to contest.

Borg has not ruled out running for MEP. "I am concentrating on my work here and I would like to conclude the things I have started. Nobody has approached me to run for MEP."

A former deputy prime minister ,before his appointment to the European Commission, at times Borg jokes about the difference in being a minister in a small country like Malta and a commissioner within the European Union. "Whatever I do today affects 500 million people. Although back home it was more stressful because you'd have to juggle between your ministerial responsibilities and remaining in contact with the electorate due to the elections. At least here, even though the job is harder, I can fully concentrate on my work."

His days are packed with meetings with ministers, MEPs, non-governmental organisations, industries and more. More than anything, he emphasised the importance of building alliances with MEPs.

His emotional attachment to Malta becomes evident whenever he speaks of the island, and he says that he still follows the local political scene closely. In the few months since his appointment, Borg has worked for increased controls in food safety, and after the eruption of the horsemeat scandal, Borg also pushed for a new regulation which stipulates that the fines imposed to those found in breach of the regulation would be equal to the illegal profit made from the violation of the law.

Together with Internal Market Commissioner Michel Barnier, Borg also worked on a directive on bank accounts where everyone is given the right to open a bank account.

This issue is particularly pertinent to students, as certain banks were not allowing students to open bank accounts.

He has also pushed for the two-year restriction on neonicotinoids - nerve-agent pesticides blamed for the decline in global bee populations.