Check against delivery, 

President Iohannis,

Distinguished guests,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am delighted to address you today.

Let me start by expressing my deep appreciation for the efforts of President Iohannis in championing tobacco control in Romania and beyond.

Congratulations on your award today, President. It is well deserved.  

But our work is not finished yet.

Today, I want to say a few words about an issue that is close to my heart -- sustainable progress.

Why is this important?

Well, firstly, sustainable progress is the underlying theme of the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Sustainable development goals is an urgent call for action in ending poverty, improving health and education, reducing inequality and ensuring all human rights, especially children's. All of them are enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union and in the Treaty of Lisbon.

Secondly, it is very relevant to today’s subject.

Moving towards a tobacco-free world is a perfect example of what sustainable progress would look like in practice.

But this type of progress depends on a number of factors, including:

  • Sticking to a rules-based international order, and;
  • Developing strong partnerships across multiple sectors, including with the human rights community.  

In this respect, we are lucky.

We already have a remarkable international tool that tackles tobacco control in a comprehensive manner and is grounded in human rights. 

The World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) is the world’s first public health treaty.

From the very first paragraph, the FCTC highlights the need to protect public health.

In fact, the FCTC is grounded in the right of everyone to enjoy the highest attainable standards of health.

Indeed, an adult has a right to freedom of choice, although this right is not absolute. Everyone has to respect another person's right to smoke-free environment, right to breathe clean air and right to clean drinking water, etc. Especially, there is no free choice when we have to protect children's rights, to ensure their highest health protection, safeguard them against aggressive marketing and advertising.

It tackles tobacco control in a comprehensive manner and its implementation is now enshrined in the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Ladies and gentlemen,

If we can implement the FCTC at regional and country level, we will take a giant step towards preventing and controlling non-communicable diseases like lung cancer and cardio-vascular disease.

But we should not forget that FCTC implementation also contributes significantly to other SDGs, including on:

  • Climate action;
  • Economic growth and poverty eradication;
  • Gender equality;
  • Reducing inequalities, and;
  • Reinforcing partnerships and policy coherence.   

So, what steps are we taking to turn the FCTC into reality? Let me give you some examples.

As a starting point, we are focusing on the strong regulation of tobacco products and their advertising, promotion and sponsorship.

For instance, we have introduced large-sized pictorial warnings on tobacco packaging.

Some Member States like France, the United Kingdom, and Ireland have gone further and are implementing plain packaging measures.

Others are moving in this direction too.

We are also the first regional jurisdiction to roll out an EU-wide traceability system for tobacco products.  

I want to stress that EU legislation also outlines rules for tobacco-related products like electronic cigarettes. The focus here is on safety, quality, consumer information and data protection.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I think it is important that we approach tobacco control holistically.

That means we need to engage in a wide range of policies beyond health.

For example, the European Commission recently took steps to reduce tobacco product waste in the environment.

We have proposed legislation to reduce the impact of single-use plastic products including cigarette butts and this is now close to final adoption. Can you imagine that one single cigarette butt can pollute about 500 litres of water, and thrown on the ground it can take up to twelve years to disintegrate? You can find hundreds and thousands of cigarette butts on our beaches and on the playgrounds. Do we really think that it is the safest and healthiest environment for our children?

At the same time, we are promoting sustainable farming.

The EU’s post-2020 Common Agricultural Policy encourages farmers to switch to alternatives to tobacco farming

We will also look at amending our tobacco taxation provisions.

Endeavours to extend smoke-free environment is very important. Creation of healthy cities and communities is crucial to tacking smoking in the EU.

Tobacco consumption remains the single largest avoidable health risk and the most significant cause of premature death in the European Union.

That is unacceptable to me.

As the European Commissioner for Health and Food Safety, as a doctor, and as a father, I am especially determined to protect our young people.

As Nelson Mandela once said, “there can be no keener revelation of a society's soul than the way in which it treats its children”.

So I am deeply concerned that the rate of smoking among young people has increased EU-wide from 25 percent in 2014 to 29 percent in 2017.

We need to recognise how vulnerable children and youth are to tobacco and the insidious efforts of the tobacco industry.

  • They are constantly exposed to clever advertising.
  • I am outraged that many young people are still employed in tobacco production.
  • Many more are the future business model of the tobacco industry. We see them as our future; but so does the tobacco industry.
  • They suffer the effects of second-hand smoke from their smoking parents – something over which they have no control.

Despite important progress in the EU, it frustrates me that young people can access tobacco products so easily.

I am also very worried by young people taking up smoking and vaping.

We know that seventy percent of smokers were under 18 when they started smoking – so we need to do more to protect young people before they get addicted.

New products such as heated tobacco are a particular challenge.

The EU does have a regulatory framework for novel tobacco products under the Tobacco Products Directive.

But even so, the market share of these products is rapidly growing and I am worried that some of these are especially attractive to young people.

For example, they are exposed to aggressive and probably misleading advertising.

Marketing campaigns often claim that these products are better, smoke-free alternatives to conventional cigarettes.

So we need to analyse them carefully and regulate appropriately.

We cannot allow these new products to circumvent our existing tobacco control measures, such as smoke-free environments or comprehensive bans on advertising, promotion and sponsorship.

Here again, the FCTC and the Decision on novel products adopted at the last Conference of the Parties will guide us forward.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The European Union has always championed multilateralism based on democratic values and human rights.

Respect for the rule of law is ‘who we are’ – and I think it is important that we stress that again and again.  

These non-negotiable principles and values are set out in the EU Treaties and are the foundations upon which we build our societies.

For example, the Treaty of the European Union states that a high-level of health protection shall be ensured in the implementation of all Union policies.

The Charter of Fundamental Rights states that every European has the right to preventive healthcare.

But these rights and common values are not self-executing.

The EU, its Member States, and in fact all Europeans need to uphold, maintain and strengthen them.

The FCTC is a strong example of this effort and it represents multilateralism in practice.

I firmly believe that FCTC implementation will also help us fulfil our broader human rights obligations.

This is especially true when it comes to our duty to protect the rights of children.

I want to remind you that the Convention on the Rights of the Child is legally binding and every Member State has to implement it. It is not a choice it is an obligation.

So let us do everything in our power to champion these rights.

In doing so, we will deliver sustainable progress and pave the way for a smoke-free world.

Each time I have a possibility speak on tobacco issues, I deeply regret that once, more than 500 years ago, dried tobacco leaves were brought to Europe as a gift to Christopher Columbus from the American Indians. Had we known the price of this gift, we would not have accepted it..

Thank you for your time.