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March 3rd, 2016:

Anti-tobacco lobby urges MEPs to reject Philip Morris deal

Politicians and activists fiercely opposed to the tobacco industry are trying to persuade MEPs to speak out against renewing an EU anti-smuggling agreement with multinational Philip Morris International (PMI).

The centre-left socialists, the second-largest parliamentary group, agreed on Wednesday (2 March) to reject any renewal of the deal. The European Parliament is currently preparing a text on the EU-PMI deal to be voted on in Strasbourg next week.

Formally, MEPs have no say on whether or not the European Commission decides to begin new negotiations with PMI to continue the 12-year-old deal, which is set to expire in July.

But although next week’s resolution is non-binding, a strongly worded text with a broad support would be politically difficult for the commission to ignore.

“My message to the European Parliament: please be united,” EU health commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis told a conference in parliament on Wednesday titled Combating Tobacco Industry Tactics.

Andriukaitis is against renewing the deal.

“I see no reasons for this extension,” he said, adding that he did not agree with those who argue there could be a regulatory gap if no deal is agreed.

‘A very stupid industry’

The EU-PMI agreement, which cemented a partnership between the tobacco firm and the EU’s anti-fraud agency Olaf, obliged PMI to keep track of its products to prevent smuggling. PMI also paid roughly €1 billion into the EU and member state budgets.

But many of the provisions have since been adopted as EU legislation, due to come into force in 2019. Some are now arguing that a bridge deal is required.

The health commissioner argued the tobacco industry had to prepare for that legislation anyway, saying: “I don’t see a regulatory gap.”

He would not say which of his fellow commissioners are arguing in favour of renewing the deal, but a letter from his colleague commissioner Pierre Moscovici, seen by this website, said that the college of commissioners “wants more time to think about it – proof that it is not so settled among my colleagues”.

Andriukaitis reaffirmed that the college would not make a decision before the parliament vote, adding that he expected a decision at the college meeting on 16 March.

The Lithuanian politician has strong views about the tobacco industry, which he called “a very stupid industry”.

“They produce a product which kills their consumers every year,” he said.

“Strange business. It’s a very strange business. Last year they killed 700,000 Europeans. It’s unacceptable.”

He called on tobacco firms to reform their business: “Please, start to change your industry and to produce shoes, for example.”

His audience applauded and cheered his emotional speech. Tobacco lobbyists were not allowed to be present, in line with a World Health Organisation treaty, the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.

EU credibility at risk

Katharina Kummer Peiry was present on behalf of the secretariat of the convention.

She also argued against negotiating for a renewal.

“There are numerous legal and technical reasons to ditch this agreement, but there is one absolutely critical issue that has an impact worldwide,” Kummer Peiry said.

“Tobacco companies are desperate for respectability. They really can’t allow us to see them for what they are: Multimillion euro businesses enthusiastically peddling a product that kills its consumers.”

She said that tobacco companies are executing a “global rebranding” campaign.

“In this imaginary incarnation, tobacco companies are responsible global citizens working as partners with governments, law enforcement agencies, and others. A renewed EU agreement would assist this campaign,” she said.

Andriukaitis’ predecessor, former Maltese commissioner Tonio Borg, was also on the panel. He warned against the loss of credibility the EU would suffer if it renewed the deal, bringing to memory that PMI had legally challenged the tobacco products directive.

He said: “How can we sign an agreement when we are in court with the other side?

“Why risk the image of the Commission, and of the European Union in general?

“I don’t have proof, but sometimes I have this feeling that this money is not being used explicitly to fight tobacco smuggling, to the extent that the member states want to retain this free money coming in from the tobacco industry.”

Linda McAvan, British MEP of the centre-left socialists, said tobacco companies like PMI want such agreements “to have access to politicians”.

“I think there is a move across parliament now, so I’m hopeful we will get a strong message next week in our resolution, to reject any new agreement,” she said.

A European Parliament source said the left-wing Greens, the far-left GUE/NGL group and the eurosceptic EFDD group were expected to vote against renewal, but this would not yet constitute a majority.

Anti-tobacco group Smoke Free Partnership is distributing a document with counter-arguments among “key MEPs”.

Borg, who was commissioner on behalf of the centre-right EPP, the largest group in the parliament, said he had a “hunch” the group would “follow soon” in taking a common stance on rejecting an extension.

EPP spokesman Pete Pakarinen told EUobserver on Thursday that there is no position yet. The EPP will discuss the issue on 8 March to find out if it can reach a position, and if so what that should be.

He noted that the tobacco agreements were not as important anymore because of new legislation, “but there may still be some value” in them. Pakarinen said that the vote, initially scheduled for 8 March, was postponed by a day.

A spokesman for the ECR, the third largest parliamentary group, said the bloc wanted to “open negotiations but to reserve judgement on any final text”.

E-Cigarettes May Be Safer Than Tobacco Cigarettes When It Comes To Formaldehyde; Should We Be Skeptical?

New preliminary research presented today at the annual conference of the Society for Research on Nicotine and Tobacco in Chicago, IL, is sure to further stoke an ongoing debate on the actual harms of electronic cigarettes.

The study claims to have found that even the heavy use of e-cigarettes, roughly equivalent to 350 puffs a day, leaves little formaldehyde, a known carcinogen, behind. To further bolster their point, the authors compared their measured levels of daily formaldehyde exposure from three vaping products to several safety benchmarks, including one designed by the World Health Organization (WHO), finding they fell dramatically short. And when compared to a conventional tobacco cigarette, a readily available source of formaldehyde, they found the level of e-cigarette exposure was over ten times less, again indicating their relative safety.

“The results from this study show that even heavy use of these products still only results in daily formaldehyde exposure that is less than one sixth of the exposure from breathing indoor air that complies with WHO air quality standards,” said lead author Dr. Sandra Costigan in a statement.


Despite these impressive results, the list of caveats that come attached with the study should be enough to make anyone cautiously skeptical.

For one, the study was funded and conducted by British American Tobacco (BAT), a company that in 2013 trumpeted its status as the “first international tobacco company to launch an e-cigarette, Vype, in the UK.” In 2014, it developed two additional e-cigarette products, the Vype eStick and Vype ePen, and 2015 saw the arrival of the Vype eTank (the study appears to have tested the Vype, Vype ePen, and Vype eTank). Costigan, in addition to being the lead author, is also BAT’s Principal Toxicologist for electronic cigarettes.

Without casting aspersions on BAT personally, it’s worth emphasizing the long history of tobacco industry-funded studies that concluded their “reduced risk” products, such as low-tar cigarettes, did just that, only to be eventually debunked by independent scientists afterwards. For one of many examples, while medium tar, filtered cigarettes, the type most smokers use today, are safer than the high-tar cigarettes of the past, there doesn’t appear to be any difference in mortality when switching to low-tar cigarettes, namely because low-tar users simply take longer puffs or smoke more cigarettes to get the same nicotine high.

Secondly, as mentioned at the very beginning, the study has yet to be published in a peer reviewed journal. Meanwhile, a study that was peer reviewed and published in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) last year also sought to measure levels of formaldehyde from the heavy use of e-cigarettes and came to very different conclusions. Testing a device similar to the Vype eTank at a high voltage level, they estimated that the levels of formaldehyde they measured could, over the long term, amount to an “incremental lifetime cancer risk” five to fifteen times higher than conventional cigarettes.

The ‘Dry Puff’ Problem

Of course, the plot only thickens from here. As Costigan explains, how formaldehyde is produced differs between the two products. “In cigarette smoke, most formaldehyde is produced as the result of burning sugars naturally present in tobacco as well as added sugars and glycerol, whereas in vaping products, it is generally produced as a thermal breakdown product of glycerol and propylene glycol (PG).”

In the simplest terms, that means tobacco cigarettes produce a gaseous form of formaldehyde, whose effect on cancer risk we’ve studied extensively. However, vaping products produce formaldehyde-releasing agents, and as the NEJM authors admit, we don’t really know how these agents affect our body when inhaled.

That ambiguity aside, other researchers have criticized the NEJM study and those similar to it for cherry-picking their findings by choosing to focus on a high-voltage setting that few consumers would typically use, since it would purportedly create an unpleasant-tasting “dry puff.” Indeed, at lower voltages, the NEJM researchers found negligible amounts of formaldehyde production.

In a response, the authors acknowledged these criticisms, but also claimed there was “a lack of objective data with which to judge whether these devices are being used as safely as possible.” They further remarked that while some cigar smokers actively avoid inhaling cigar smoke, there are plenty who do, and that the same could be true for some e-cigarette users who enjoy the dry puff, especially if the vast variety of flavored vaping products successfully masks the taste.

In short, the fight over formaldehyde comes down to what we should consider typical heavy use, one that likely won’t be settled by any one study (the current study relied on “vaping robots” to produce their vapor)

“We believe e-cigarettes hold great potential for reducing tobacco-related disease. For this reason, we continue to strive to better define and further reduce any residual risks that there may be, to as low a level as possible,” said Costigan.

Much of that touted potential is believed to come from the notion that tobacco users can and will switch over to less harmful e-cigarettes and eventually wean themselves off nicotine completely.

Unfortunately, as with formaldehyde, the evidence for that actually happening in the real world is decidedly mixed.

“It is true that cigarettes are known to contain many toxicants at relatively higher concentrations than electronic nicotine-delivery systems (ENDS),” the NEJM authors wrote at the end of their response. “What is unknown are the overall toxicologic effects of ENDS. It will probably take at least a decade for the public health consequences of long-term vaping to be even partially understood.”

In other words, buckle your seatbelts, folks. It’s gonna be a long ride.

Source: Costigan S, Sommarstrom J. Formaldehyde from different format electronic cigarettes compared to the WHO air guideline. Annual Conference of the Society for Research on Nicotine and Tobacco. 2016.