By Simon Clark
Last month public health minister Anna Soubry met her match in the form of fellow Conservative MP Bill Cash. Members of the European scrutiny committee, which he chairs, were furious she had denied them the opportunity to discuss draft proposals to revise the European Commission's tobacco products directive.
Instead, and without the committee's approval, Soubry presumptuously agreed a general response to the directive at a meeting of European health ministers in Luxembourg on June 21st.
Summoned to explain herself, she told the Committee she was sorry things had not been done properly. Cash however was in no mood for apologies. He told her: "We take a decision to override scrutiny very seriously indeed, especially when it concerns a proposal of such importance."
The issue at stake was the committee's role in scrutinising important legislation before it is imposed on Britain by the regulation-hungry European parliament. Desperate to progress the controversial tobacco products directive before the end of Ireland's six-month presidency of the European Council, Soubry had requested waivers from the scrutiny committees in both Houses. The Lords agreed but the Commons scrutiny committee said no.
So what did Soubry do? She brazenly ignored their decision and travelled to Luxemburg where a meeting of health ministers on June 21st agreed, among other things, to ban the sale of menthol cigarettes and increase the size of health warnings on all tobacco products throughout the European Union.
If passed by MEPs in September, the tobacco products directive will also prohibit smaller pouches of roll your own tobacco and severely restrict the shape and size of cigarette packets.
It beggars belief that any Conservative minister would support such severe regulations on a legal product, even one as controversial as tobacco. To allow the EU to impose them, whilst denying any scrutiny of the legislation in Westminster, invites ridicule and contempt.
For years some of us have warned that some public health campaigners and politicians will only be happy when the sale and consumption of tobacco is prohibited and smoking is made illegal. Clearly, we are on the road to prohibition when an entire category, menthol-flavoured tobacco, is to be outlawed.
This and other regulations in the directive could have serious repercussions for British retailers, many of whom will struggle with the loss of business. If the products under threat are banned, some UK shops could see 20 per cent of their usual stock of tobacco removed from the shelves. How will they replace the revenue they earn from those products?
The impact of the legislation will also be felt by millions of law-abiding consumers who will be denied the choice they once took for granted. Criminal gangs will of course be only too happy to meet demand on the black market, but that's another matter.
This week the smokers' group Forest launched a new campaign that will give consumers and retailers in Britain a much-needed voice against the latest EU Directive. It's called NoThankEU and it follows the successful Hands Off Our Packs campaign on plain packaging.
The campaign website has more information but here are five reasons to oppose the tobacco products directive:
1. Have we learned nothing from history? Prohibition doesn't work.
2. Excessive regulation will deny consumers choice and drive them to the black market.
3. Criminal gangs will make a fortune manufacturing and selling prohibited products.
4. Don't let the EU impose an extreme regulatory agenda on UK consumers.
5. What next – alcohol, sugary drinks, convenience food?
Meanwhile, Cash believes there has been a breach of the rules. I would put it a little stronger than that and I sincerely hope Soubry and the relevant civil servants are held to account.
But whether she survives as public health minister is neither here nor there. What matters is that no British parliament should meekly roll over when the European Union tries to impose on the UK legislation that strikes at the very heart of our mature, consumer-friendly society.
That's the bigger picture and I hope that even non-smokers might agree with that.
Simon Clark is director of the smokers’ lobby group Forest. He is also author of the Taking Liberties blog. To register your support for the campaign against the tobacco products directive, visit NoThankEU.com.
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