Carl Sagan reputedly wrote that “if we did not respect the evidence, we would have very little leverage in our quest for the truth.” Most of the participants of the debate on the shape of the Revision to the European Union Tobacco Products Directive (TPD) would (and did) vociferously concur with Sagan’s sentiment. And yet the fierce dispute that followed the EU Commission’s announcement in December 2012 that it will propose a revision of the original 2001 Tobacco Products Directive suggests that even if all the involved parties accepted the importance of research in policymaking, they might have been looking at different sets of evidence.
The original EU TPD from 2001 laid out progressive laws regulating the manufacture, marketing and sale of tobacco products in Europe. This included limits for tar, nicotine and carbon monoxide in cigarettes, required health warnings on tobacco packaging, and a ban on descriptions such as ‘light’. The regulation was hailed by the EU officials as being in line with research on minimising tobacco harm and representing the linear approach to policy development whereby scientific evidence translates directly to legislation.
In 2011 the EU Commission undertook a summative evaluation of the original TPD. The Commission deemed that ‘market, scientific and international developments’ that have occurred since the original TPD warrant a revision of the directive. Among the key proposals of the Revision was introducing mandatory pictorial warnings of 75% on top of cigarette packs, the ban on the sale of ‘slim’ cigarettes and adding flavouring to cigarettes, as well as a host of minor provisions such as minimum numbers of cigarettes to be sold in a pack or increasing the traceability of tobacco products to prevent smuggling. These revisions were then passed on to a vote in the European Parliament (EP), that took place in October 2013.
Poland, the most populous country to have entered the EU in the last few rounds of accessions, with 51 MEPs has the sixth highest number of Europarlamentarians out of the EU member states. Since it was predicted that the vote on the provisions of the updated TPD might be very close, their role was crucial in deciding on its outcome. This proved out to be true. The vast majority of MEPs voted along the lines of EU political parties – with the Left and Greens voting predominantly for the more strict regulation of tobacco products, while the Liberals and Right voted for softening the proposed Revision in favour of the industry. The only significant exception to this rule were the Polish MEPs who, regardless their political affiliation, voted for smaller sizes of pictorial sizes, less regulation of tobacco sales, and no ban on ‘slim’ or menthol cigarettes. As a result the European Parliament decided to reduce the size of pictorial warnings to 65% of the pack, not ban the sale of ‘slims’, and permit an eight year transition period before implementing the ban on menthol flavouring.
How did the decision of the Polish MEPs than fit into the research-policy nexus? Did they simply disregard the evidence at their disposal? We will try to answer those questions in our upcoming article, after the European Parliament will vote on whether to approve the Tobacco Products Directive in its current form.