Irish Minister of Health James Reilly has an extraordinarily personal motivation for his mission. First, his father, who went blind after a heart attack, lay bedridden for years before he died. Then, his brother, a doctor who had tried in vain for years to stop smoking, died recently of lung cancer. “This is not a bad habit; it’s an insidious disease, and what is propagating it must be fought,” is what Reilly tells reporters. It’s the same argument he used, last spring, to persuade all of Ireland to introduce plain packaging illustrated with up-close photos of lungs ravaged by smoking for all cigarette “brands” – the second country in the world after Australia to do so.

Reilly and his government colleagues made the fight against tobacco a central theme of their recently-concluded six-month presidency of the EU [which ended June 30]. The result has been extraordinary. European health ministers decided in June that a regulation similar to Ireland’s should be in force across Europe within three years. New legislation must now be ratified by the European Parliament.

Tip of the iceberg

At the same time, experts are well aware that the last body that would want to roll it back is one of the most obscure and powerful forces in contemporary politics: the tobacco lobby.

“Everyone except the heads of delegations out of the room, please.” European diplomats recall Reilly uttering these previously-unheard words during the decisive moments of the Luxembourg talks about the “packaging” directive. But it is easy to understand why he said them: just before the hearing, it was discovered that someone was passing on the details of previous meetings directly to the tobacco companies. Many of those present during the debate recalled the investigation surrounding health commissioner John Dalli, who allegedly accepted money from the tobacco companies to alter the wording of EU legislation.

When Reilly got his way, the Brussels journal EUobserver likened it to a “David versus Goliath” victory, Goliath being the more than one hundred men and women, who, officially registered as lobbyists with an annual budget of 130 million crowns, work out of Brussels to ensure the tobacco business runs smoothly. And it is said they are the “tip of the iceberg” when it comes to the much larger army of pro-tobacco campaigners, which for many years has been extremely successful in getting close to European Commission politicians who have the most to do with the pertinent legislation.

This lobby naturally focuses on the governments of member states, who alone can give final ratification to the Brussels decision

This lobby naturally focuses on the governments of member states, who alone can give final ratification to the Brussels decision. When British scientists launched an extensive analysis of recent changes in European health care last year, they chose the Czech Republic for a case study of a country exposed to the influence of the tobacco lobby. “These small states are particularly vulnerable,” explains Helen Ross, executive director of the American Cancer Society (ACS) and one of the authors of the study, from New York. “In the US, we uncovered a well-thought-out strategy that the tobacco company has deployed for many years to precisely target those smaller states. Gaining influence there is easier, and yet when it comes to an EU vote, they have the same weight as the big states.”

Big business

The June hearing to review Reilly’s proposal on the tobacco directive ran into stiff resistance from the Czech delegation. It was the only one to proclaim a “no concession” policy, and delegates demanded only one thing: that the directive be struck down. Thanks only to the fact that the vote took place under the Lisbon Treaty, the sole Czech “nay” lacked the power of veto to quash the whole project.

Does an explanation lie in the furious lobbying of the tobacco companies in their own defence, as Helen Ross claims? If so, what exact form does such lobbying take? The British researchers themselves lack the answers to similar concrete questions. Ross, however, did spend several weeks in Prague last year, meeting with about a dozen politicians, officials and representatives of the tobacco companies. The result of her work is worthy of attention: “The official representatives of the Czech Republic speak exactly the way that proves convenient to the tobacco producers: they roll out their standard arguments and refuse any change,” Ross concludes. “Their influence is readily apparent.”

Just like elsewhere in Europe, tobacco is big business in the Czech Republic. The Kutnohorská firm of Philip Morris alone, which has roughly 40 per cent of the market – the remainder being carved up among global brands such as British American Tobacco, Imperial Tobacco, and Japan Tobacco – reports net profits of two and a half billion crowns every year. At first glance, it may not seem much, considering state energy company CEZ rakes in the same amount every three weeks. Tobacco, however, means roughly fifty billion crowns in recoverable taxes, which account for about 77 percent of the package price.

No direct evidence

What is interesting is that although over the years there have been many indications that tobacco companies have been secretly financing political parties, no direct evidence of corruption has been uncovered to date. And lobbyists themselves, speaking anonymously, have expressed their delight that there can still be found an extraordinary amount of politicians in the Czech environment who – thanks, for example, to their resistance to the European Union and to regulation in general – argue for the interests of the tobacco companies so selflessly.

“It’s just another attempt from Brussels to regulate the market,” says Jaroslav Kubera, head of the Civic Democrat (ODS) senators’ group, repeating the arguments that he used to get the entire leadership of the party club onside to reject the European proposal. “Today it’s smoking, next we’ll have to prohibit greasy food or driving a car. We have to stand up against it and to defend freedom.”

In the Assembly of the Committee on European Affairs, Kubera’s party colleagues even pushed for the so-called “yellow card” against the tobacco directive, which is an exceptional diplomatic method of submitting a formal complaint against Brussels for overstepping its powers and forcing it to reconsider a law.

For now, not even the pro-European left promises change

For now, not even the pro-European left promises change. “I don’t see it as something to wage political battle over,” says Jeroným Tejc, leader of the ČSSD [Czech Social Democratic Party] parliamentary group. “The issue doesn’t resonate with the party, and even though I’m a non-smoker, I respect the views of colleagues who have a different take on smoking.”

At 2,125 cigarettes smoked per adult resident [each year], the Czech Republic finds itself in twelfth place in worldwide per capita tobacco consumption, between Russia and Belarus. According to fresh data from the State Health Institute, the average age at which the first cigarette is smoked has shifted down to children under twelve years of age for the first time in history. In contrast, according to recent opinion polls conducted by the Faculty of Social Sciences at Charles University, a ban on smoking in Czech restaurants desired by 80 percent of the population, including also almost half of all smokers. After decades of delay, last year the Czech Republic was the last European country to ratify the World Health Organization agreement, which guarantees a gradual tightening of [public smoking] laws.

“I have no doubt the change in thinking will arrive here. The question is when,” says deputy Boris Šťastný, a doctor. “But it will happen only due to EU pressure, or when the first court case is brought by a waiter or waitress who got lung cancer through exposure in the workplace. It is precisely these cases that got a change in the laws underway in other countries and made it clear how warped those words about the freedom of smokers really are.”