The European Commission has ignored calls for more transparency in its dealings with the tobacco industry, a watchdog said Monday, ratcheting up criticism sparked by a 2012 lobbying scandal that ended the career of the bloc's then health commissioner.
"This is a missed opportunity ... to show global leadership in the vital area of tobacco lobbying," European ombudsman Emily O'Reilly said in a statement. "It appears that the sophistication of global lobbying efforts by big tobacco continues to be underestimated."
Health commissioner John Dalli left his post in late 2012 after being accused of staging confidential meetings with tobacco lobbyists and of knowing that an acquaintance was using Dalli's name to solicit bribes from a tobacco company.
The commission - the European Union's executive - has an important role in setting EU legislation on smoking and tobacco products. Its clampdown on the harmful effects of smoking have led to intense lobbying efforts by the tobacco industry.
In November, O'Reilly said the entire commission - with the exception of Dalli's former department - was not being proactive enough about publishing information on meetings with the tobacco industry.
This was in breach of World Health Organization (WHO) rules and guidelines on tobacco lobbying, she said at the time, recommending that details of all commission meetings with tobacco lobbyists or their legal representatives should be published.
The EU's executive responded in January, rejecting O'Reilly's findings and stating that it "complies in full" with WHO obligations. Its overriding principles regarding lobby groups are "transparency, integrity and equality of treatment," the letter said.
Meetings with tobacco industry representatives are "very few," and there is "no evidence that meetings have been kept 'secret'," the EU executive argued, in the response submitted by President Jean-Claude Juncker.
But O'Reilly said Monday that it was not enough to meet the minimum legal standards. "Public health demands the highest standard," she added.
Corporate Europe Observatory, a campaign group that seeks to challenge big business, threw its weight behind the ombudsman.
"If the commission does not even take the risks of undue lobbying influence seriously for this most controversial sector, then how can the public have any trust in its overall ability to protect the public interest?" Olivier Hoedeman said.