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Delegates, Joint Action Partners, Ladies and Gentlemen,
At the end of the XV century Christopher Columbus received dried tobacco leaves as a gift from the American Indians. Very soon tobacco was brought to Europe and was considered as a ‘novel food’ that brings health and welfare.
Looking at that from the perspective of our days, we can only regret how wrong they were… It was an absolutely accidental factor that tobacco started being grown and consumed all over Europe.
In 1620, an English physician named Tobias Veneer wrote that "immoderate use of tobacco hurts the brain and the eye and induces trembling of the limbs and heart."
Nearly 150 years later, another English doctor wrote a book called Cautions Against the Immoderate Use of Snuff.
And in 1949, Richard Doll and Bradford Hill carried out their seminal research into the links between smoking and lung cancer.
We have known about the danger of tobacco consumption for a long time, even if our understanding of the exact effects has developed a lot in the past four hundred years.
And yet, despite everything we know, tobacco consumption is still the single largest avoidable health risk in the European Union. During my last speech in Athens this Monday, which was dedicated to World Cancer Day, I mentioned in detail all the numbers, but I will repeat once again:
- Tobacco is the most significant cause of premature death in the European Union.
- Half of all smokers die prematurely, on average 14 years earlier.
- It is responsible for a staggering number of deaths every year - nearly 700,000.
Every one of these avoidable deaths is unacceptable to me -- which is why I am especially worried by the current trends in the EU:
- The smoking rate in the EU has stayed at 26 percent since 2014.
- Amongst young people, the rate of smoking has increased EU-wide from 25 percent in 2014 to 29 percent in 2017.
- At the same time, the mortality rate from lung cancer increased by almost 20% in the EU over the past decade.
In light of these figures, I am delighted to join this important meeting of the Joint Action on Tobacco Control. And I want to thank Professor Behrakis for coordinating the Joint Action and helping to organise this event.
We all know very well, that in 2021 the Commission is required to report back to the Parliament and the Council on the implementation of the Tobacco Products Directive. So I am happy that we have started doing our homework on time.
Ladies and gentlemen,
We have far reaching legislation in the European Union. But we need to ensure that it is implemented effectively and delivers benefits to our citizens.
I want to take this opportunity to assure you that better application of EU law is a priority for this Commission.
It is true that Member States have the primary responsibility for transposing, applying and implementing EU law correctly.
At the same time, the Commission is determined to partner with national authorities to support this effort.
And as the European Commissioner for Health and Food Safety, as a doctor, as a father and grandfather I am determined to protect citizens, particularly children, adolescents and young people.
This Joint Action was set up to do exactly that – by supporting the implementation of the Tobacco Products Directive.
For example, it will help European Union regulators to implement new measures concerning product composition that were introduced by the Directive.
But this partnership depends on political will. So I am delighted that 25 Member States have joined this first Joint Action on tobacco control.
I was particular happy to participate in a tobacco control event two days ago in Greece, initiated and organized by Prof Behrakis, the Hellenic Cancer Society and the Greek Ministry of Health. I hope that with the enthusiasm that I saw there we can move forward much more efficiently in tobacco control.
And I want to thank the Hellenic Cancer Society, clearly a committed coordinator, for successfully setting-up this ambitious endeavour.
I greatly appreciate your efforts and assure you that these have not gone unnoticed.
Ladies and gentlemen,
I want to take a moment to revisit the key provisions of the Directive. As you know, it focuses on safety, quality, consumer protection and information gathering. It also helps to protect our children and adolescents against aggressive tobacco marketing.
One of its core aims is to make tobacco products less attractive to young people – which is why we have added larger picture and text health warnings on products.
Other key features include bans on promotional and misleading elements and the regulation of advertising and sponsorship.
The Directive also provides a regulatory framework for novel tobacco products, electronic cigarettes and for addressing illicit cross-border tobacco sales through the tracking and tracing system.
In certain aspects of the Directive, the European Union has been a pioneer of tobacco control.
Globally, the EU was the first legislator to introduce innovative approaches for electronic reporting; using a standardised format; determination of characterising flavours; and the review of priority additives.
It is true that the new reporting obligations under the Tobacco Products Directive represented a challenge -- in terms of quantity, the type of the data and the submission format.
Some of the collected data were completely new. But this is also an opportunity. European Union regulators now sit on a treasure trove of precious information.
The next step is using this data to benefit citizens.
Crucially, the tobacco industry is obliged to comply with the Directive. And this includes the obligation to conduct comprehensive studies on additives -- which are highly relevant to public health. These studies will require rigorous review by the regulators.
So where exactly do we stand with the Joint Action – and where do we go from here?
Firstly, I should note it is already a great achievement that more than 20 countries have signed the agreement on product data sharing. This was a key milestone, enabling efficient data processing and facilitating the work of the whole group.
We are now at the initiative's midpoint. We have 20 months to translate the incredible amount of information collected from industry into tangible outputs.
This will help us to take the right decisions on the right products at the right time.
The Joint Action has the potential to deliver real progress when it comes to the analysis of ingredients and e-cigarette data. This knowledge will provide a solid base for regulators to act.
So I am looking forward to this analysis and the opportunities it will provide.
In addition, I expect that at the end of the Joint Action, Member States will have fulfilled their obligation to publish this data.
Having the possibility to be on this stage I also want to encourage all Member States to ratify as soon as possible a Protocol to Eliminate Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products. Disregard of some Member States for this matter shows lack of understanding. We need to be more united in this battle.
Friends, I am relying on you.
You are the experts who understand your domestic markets. At the same time, you possess the technical tools to analyse the products on these markets.
You are in the perfect positon to assess their compliance with the national legislation. And yes, I am aware that regulatory capacities vary considerably between Member States.
Recognising this, it is imperative that we maximise the potential of our limited resources. This is particularly true of the assessment and verification of notified data.
In order to best understand the data, we need to be able to compare and bench-mark against others -- especially in areas where testing has not been standardised, such as the measurement of e-cigarette emissions and their possible impact on human health.
So, I am counting on very close cooperation amongst you, both directly in Brussels, but also within your work packages and coordination meetings.
Ladies and gentlemen,
I can clearly remember seeing lung cancers and other tobacco-associated diseases in my early days as a surgeon. I remember many of the patients and their families and the trauma they faced.
Too much precious time is stolen from us by these avoidable diseases.
I am convinced that this Joint Action will go a long way towards our ultimate goal -- protecting citizens from the dangers of tobacco consumption.
Remember, I urge you to aim for solid outcomes.
These will be important when the Commission reviews the Joint Action and decides whether to support a follow-up Joint Action.
For example, it can form a robust basis for future regulatory collaboration -- by integrating results into national and EU policies in a sustainable way.
The presence of both the Joint Action partners and the Member State representatives today signals the political will present in this room.
I urge you to make the most of it -- continue building good working relations and move forwards deliberately.
I wish you a productive meeting and all the best in the crucial months ahead.