All major tobacco companies are moving into vaping | Niklas Halle'n/AFP via Getty Images
Big Tobacco has a new lobbying tactic in Brussels — people power.
A petition calling for vaping products to be treated differently from tobacco was this month registered with the European Commission, using a process that's designed to give the public a say in decision-making.
However, the campaign received a €10,000 contribution from U.K.-based Imperial Brands, one of the world’s largest tobacco companies, and the individuals listed on the application include Imperial’s head of EU corporate affairs and representatives from national vaping industry lobbies.
As EU rules put the squeeze on cigarette sales, tobacco companies are expanding into vaping products and the industry is making huge efforts to ensure they avoid the regulatory fate of traditional smoking.
The petition, which calls for looser controls on vaping products by having them treated separately from tobacco products, is part of that drive. Under the rules of the European Citizens’ Initiative process, the petition’s organizers have a year to collect 1 million signatures from at least seven EU countries. If that happens, the Commission must consider their request (although it can reject it).
The involvement of individuals with direct ties to the tobacco and vaping industries “reduces the [citizens’ initiative] tool to absurdity" — Olivier Hoedeman, researcher
The Commission declined to name those behind the initiative — called “Let’s demand smarter vaping regulation” — when it was announced on February 12.
But the subsequent registration listed Dustin Dahlmann and Mosè Giacomello, representatives of the German and Italian vaping industry interests, and Valerio Forconi, head of EU corporate affairs and a registered lobbyist for Imperial Brands.
Forconi said Imperial is supporting grassroots activism by funding the campaign, and the individuals that registered the initiative said they are acting in a personal capacity.
However, a corporate watchdog group called the petition an “abuse” of the system.
The involvement of individuals with direct ties to the tobacco and vaping industries “reduces the [citizens’ initiative] tool to absurdity,” Olivier Hoedeman, a researcher at Corporate Europe Observatory, said in an emailed statement.
“Imperial Brands has vested commercial interests in getting vaping products excluded from the Tobacco Products Directive and is abusing a democratic tool for citizen participation,” he said.
Imperial Brands (which used to be Imperial Tobacco Group and sells Gauloises cigarettes and Montecristo cigars) expanded into vaping through its subsidiary Fontem Ventures, which makes the brand Blu. The U.S. and U.K. are its two biggest markets, and the company has also introduced the products in France, Germany and Italy.
“This is a real broad-based, grassroots effort and it makes complete sense for us to support it, and hopefully achieve success by shining a light on the irrationality of the current regulatory framework,” Imperial’s Forconi said of the citizens’ initiative in an emailed statement.
The petition argues the Commission needs to come up with a vaping policy that ensures “access to tobacco-free less harmful alternatives,” through “bespoke, evidence-based legislation” that takes vaping products away from the shadow of Big Tobacco.
A Commission spokesperson said that while companies cannot launch citizens’ initiatives, there is nothing in the rules to prohibit employees doing so in a personal capacity.
Organizations “can promote or support initiatives provided that they do so with full transparency,” the Commission said.
Flipping the playbook
From the 1950s onward, tobacco companies worked to emphasize scientific uncertainty and downplay links between smoking and lung cancer, and nicotine and addiction.
With vaping they are flipping the playbook.
All major tobacco companies are moving into vaping, including Altria (parent company of Philip Morris), British American Tobacco and Japan International Tobacco. In tandem with vaping industry associations, tobacco companies are relying on public health arguments to make the case that electronic cigarettes are “less harmful” than traditional ones.
“What [tobacco companies] were doing in the past was saying that there was no real evidence. In fact, it’s almost ... turning on its head at the minute,” said Martin McKee, a professor of European public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
“We want to reduce the health impact of tobacco by encouraging smokers to switch to products with lower health risks like vaping ones" — Valerio Forconi, head of EU corporate affairs at Imperial Brands
Vaping devices contain nicotine but not tobacco, heating a tank of liquid containing the addictive chemical to create a vapor that can be inhaled. The EU cracked down on both tobacco and nicotine products as part of the 2014 Tobacco Products Directive, which limited the size and strength of e-cigarette tanks, restricted advertising and set rules on packaging.
The Commission is scheduled to review the directive before May 2021.
One of the aims of the citizens’ initiative is to repeal Article 20 of the Tobacco Products Directive, which outlines the regulations on vaping products, and have them dealt with under separate rules.
“We want to reduce the health impact of tobacco by encouraging smokers to switch to products with lower health risks like vaping ones. We support proportionate evidence-based regulation that encourages smokers to use alternative products that have the potential for reduced harm,” Forconi said.
Several scientific studies have found vaping to be less harmful than traditional smoking.
While England’s public health body has strongly endorsed e-cigarettes to reduce health harm, other researchers and officials, including European Health Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis, are urging caution.
The industry bolsters its argument by citing a 2015 review by Public Health England that found e-cigarettes are “around 95 percent safer” than traditional cigarettes.
“That figure has no credibility whatsoever,” said McKee, who co-authored a commentary in medical journal The BMJ challenging the methodology of the national health body’s review. “England is completely out of line with the rest of the world,” he said.
Vaping may not bring the same risk of lung cancer as smoking “but there are serious questions about cardiovascular disease and there are enough questions there that I think the precautionary principle should be adopted,” McKee said.
An alternative, McKee said, would be to regulate e-cigarettes as a medicine, if there is evidence to show they could get people off nicotine completely.
“I see no justification for rolling them out as consumer goods, that’s a completely different ballpark,” McKee said.
Industry opposes this route, since it would mean much stricter regulatory scrutiny. The petition states that vaping should be considered separately from pharmaceutical products.
‘Time is money’
Imperial’s €10,000 has gone toward building a website on which people can add their signature to the petition, and which is expected to launch in a few weeks, according to Brandon Mitchener, a managing partner for consultancy Instinctif Partners, based in Brussels.
The tobacco company contracted the consultancy to provide “monitoring and strategic advice on a number of issues but mainly related to vaping,” according to Imperial’s Forconi.
That contract was worth between €50,000 and €99,000 in 2018, according to an entry in the EU’s transparency register. The value was earlier this month listed in the range of €100,000 to €199,999 but was revised downward “to reflect actual 2018 figures,” Mitchener said in an email.
Imperial spent more than £700 million investing in next generation products through 2018, according to a company report.
“Time is money and everyone is contributing a significant amount of time to ensure the success of this initiative" — Dustin Dahlmann and Mosè Giacomello, vaping industry representatives
Forconi said it is “hard to predict” how much money Imperial would spend promoting the petition, adding the campaign “will mainly run through social media instead of using the traditional communication touchpoints.”
Giacomello and Dahlmann, who represent national vaping industry interests in Italy and Germany, said they expect their associations and others from Ireland, the United Kingdom, Czech Republic and France “will contribute to the campaign according to [their] individual means.”
“Time is money and everyone is contributing a significant amount of time to ensure the success of this initiative,” Giacomello and Dahlmann said in a joint statement, adding that their interests’ investments would likely be more than €10,000, and would meet the EU's transparency requirements.
Andriukaitis’ office declined to comment on the petition or the involvement of the tobacco and vaping industries. The health commissioner has previously said e-cigarettes should be included in smoke-free legislation, and branded the argument that e-cigarettes should be freed from regulation because they help people quit smoking as “ridiculous.”
“We are monitoring the situation and waiting to see if 1 million statements of support are gathered,” his spokesperson Anca Paduraru wrote in an email.
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