How tobacco lobby influenced EU cost-benefit analysis

A really interesting academic study has provided a huge amount of evidence about a direct link between lobby activities of British American Tobacco (BAT), and the way that the European Union has eventually established its own, mandatory system for cost-benefit analysis of every policy it implements. The study was actually published more than a year ago but as far as we can tell there hasn’t been much media coverage – despite the fact that the implications are far reaching and pretty troubling for anyone who cares about transparency and democracy in the institutions.

The study was carried out by a group of academics from top British Universities – The School for Health at the University of Bath, the Centre for International Public Health Policy of the University of Edinburgh, and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, London.

Political and policy decisions are often extremely complex. For this reason, Impact assessment (IA) of all major EU policies has been made mandatory. The study sought to assess how, why, and in what ways corporations, and particularly the tobacco industry, influenced the EU’s approach to IA. In order to verify this, the authors analysed internal documents from BAT that were disclosed following a series of litigation cases in the United States. They then combined this analysis with other related literature and interviews with key policy making experts. Their analysis “demonstrates that from 1995 onwards BAT actively worked with other corporate actors to successfully promote a business-oriented form of IA that favoured large corporations”.

Interestingly, the authors analyse how BAT – in order to reach its lobbying goals – also took advantage of the UK government of the time, which was strongly pushing for a “better regulation” agenda during its rotating presidency of the EU.

The idea of strong industry influence over EU policy making is neither surprising nor particularly worrying in itself. However this study provides a lot of detail and evidence about some questionable and untransparent industry lobby tactics used to secure policy changes that may be against the interests of the public. In addition, while the tobacco industry appears to have been the main initiator of this kind of IA policy push, other industry lobby groups have directly benefited from the industry-friendly version of IA. In particular the authors quote the chemical industry, which may have directly benefited from this version of IA during the negotiations on the so-called REACH policy.

It is not to late to do something about this – in particular we think that civil society groups should pay far more attention to the whole issue of cost-benefit analysis in EU policy making, and particularly the use of IAs. One of the problems, however, is that these IAs by their very nature and design are often very hard for NGOs to access and contribute to. On one of the policies we work on, the Ecodesign of Energy Using Products Directive, we are told that environmental campaign organisations and consumer groups are pretty much kept in the dark about the content of IAs until they are finished – in a very untransparent process that can only favour business lobbies over civil society.

(thanks to our researcher Sophie Mueller-Godeffroy for her help in compiling this blog post)

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