Europe’s Top Health Official Quits, and the Bloc Has a Mystery on Its Hands
EUROPE, 29 October 2012
by James Kanter – The New York Times
The top health official for the European Union suddenly resigns. His plans to place marketing curbs on tobacco companies are put aside. The offices of antitobacco groups are burglarized. There is talk of cash payments of tens of millions of dollars by Big Tobacco.
The swirl of rumors here around events inevitably called “Tobaccogate” has a noirish tone that is unfamiliar in Brussels, the European Union capital better known for turgid debates about fish quotas. And much still remains mysterious and tangled in unproven accusations.
The one certainty: The fall from grace last week of John Dalli, the commissioner for health and consumer protection, was remarkably sudden. It came after investigators concluded that he had probably known about an attempt by a lobbyist to solicit a multimillion-dollar payoff in exchange for easing a ban on snus, a form of tobacco sold in small pouches and placed between the gum and lip.
In his latest public comments on the matter, Mr. Dalli denied the allegations on Wednesday 24 Oct 2012], saying at a packed news conference that the European Commission president, José Manuel Barroso, had given him 30 minutes to resign.
Mr. Dalli said that he had requested 24 hours, so he could seek legal advice, and that resigning might have been an error because it suggested guilt. But Mr. Dalli insisted that he had to do so, because Mr. Barroso has the authority to dismiss any member of the commission.
“I had no choice,” Mr. Dalli said. “The door was open, and it was simply walk out or be thrown out.”
Mr. Dalli said he would meet with a lawyer to assess whether to file suit, including at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, saying that his civil rights had been violated and that he wanted to clear his name. “I have never been offered any money by anyone to alter any issue that I am responsible for, including this case of snus, either directly or indirectly,” he said at the news conference.
The European Commission, the executive arm of the union, said Mr. Barroso had no choice but to demand Mr. Dalli’s resignation.
Commission officials have said that Swedish Match, a company that makes snus, complained to the commission in May that a Maltese entrepreneur had asked for money in return for using his contacts with Mr. Dalli. The aim, officials suspect, was to influence a legislative proposal on tobacco products — and in particular to seek an end to the ban on snus sales that covers all countries in the bloc except for Sweden.
After the complaint by Swedish Match, the commission asked the European Anti-Fraud Office to investigate. Mr. Barroso received the fraud office’s report on Oct. 15 and presented Mr. Dalli with some of the findings at their meeting the next day.
“It was politically untenable for Mr. Dalli to remain in this sensitive function,” Olivier Bailly, a spokesman for Mr. Barroso, said Monday.
Mr. Bailly said Mr. Dalli “had several unofficial contacts with elements of the industry of tobacco through a private intermediary, the Maltese entrepreneur, without there being any discernible or legitimate reasons to involve this intermediary.”
Angered by Mr. Dalli’s public remarks since his departure, Mr. Barroso published a letter he sent to Mr. Dalli on Wednesday to remind him of his “obligation, as a former commissioner, to behave with integrity.”
Snus is popular in Sweden, where some people consider it a safer alternative to smoking. So important is the product in Sweden that it won the exemption from a European Union ban on oral tobacco as part of its joining the union in 1995.
Swedish Match was asked for nearly $80 million by the Maltese middleman to use his influence with Mr. Dalli to end the snus ban, Rupini Bergstrom, a spokeswoman for the company, said Wednesday. The middleman told Swedish Match it should be prepared to hand over the first $13 million directly to Mr. Dalli, Ms. Bergstrom said.
Mr. Dalli is from Malta, where politics is a rough-and-tumble affair and where he had risen near the top of the political ladder after serving as a cabinet minister for the center-right Nationalist Party in several governments.
Mr. Dalli said his ouster had jeopardized the revised tobacco law that he had planned to begin circulating within the European Commission. Under Mr. Dalli’s proposals, cigarette manufacturers could be forced to put health warnings that cover most of the surface of their boxes, and there would be an option for some countries to require plain packaging. Commission officials had given little indication that they were about to ease the ban on snus in the European Union outside Sweden.
Mr. Dalli warned Wednesday that representatives of the tobacco industry “have been lobbying all the commission, and they have been meeting all the commission and their staff over the past months.” He described an “onslaught in the commission by the tobacco lobby.”
Adding to the intrigue are burglaries that took place late on Oct. 17, or early the next morning, just two days after the dismissal of Mr. Dalli, at the shared offices of the Smoke Free Partnership and the European Respiratory Partnership, and at the office of the European Public Health Alliance. All those organizations work in tobacco control.
The partnerships reported the theft of four laptops, three of which belonged to people working on tobacco control. The alliance reported two stolen laptops belonging to the policy team and a senior staff member and the removal of confidential documents.
A version of this article appeared in print on October 25, 2012, on page A6 of the New York edition with the headline: Europe’s Top Health Official Quits, and the Bloc Has a Mystery on Its Hands.
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