Why Germany balks at EU smoking bans

With strong backing from the industry, its politicians argue that curbing tobacco hampers personal freedom.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

Last Friday seemed destined to be a watershed. After months of intense negotiations, Germany – Europe's largest tobacco market – announced plans to ban smoking in restaurants, dance clubs, schools, and other public buildings.

Then, two days later, leaders of Germany's grand coalition government, which crafted the ban, warned they might not have the authority to actually enact it, and that smoking regulation might fall to state governments instead. The plan is now on hold indefinitely.

This reversal is the latest in a series of false starts for antitobacco legislation in Germany, which has stubbornly resisted European Union pressure to limit smoking, even as other tobacco strongholds like Italy and France have put curbs in place. Germany has also agitated against international smoking regulations and defied EU rules on tobacco advertising.

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"They're the bad boys of Europe," says Stanton Glantz, a researcher at the Center For Tobacco Control Research and Education at the University of California, San Francisco. "No other country has done as much to thwart restrictions."

The nation's politicians have long argued that strong curbs on tobacco place too much constraint on personal freedom – a message that has resonated here since Adolf Hitler tried to stomp out smoking. But industry documents show that the tobacco lobby has been fighting for years to keep Germany free of regulations. Though the documents were released in 1998 as part of Big Tobacco's settlement with American states, it took researchers years to comb through them and bring to light the extent of the lobby's influence in Germany.

In one of the first comprehensive reports based on the papers, The American Journal of Public Health (AJPH) wrote earlier this year that the industry "has enjoyed a staggering amount of influence among leading scientists and clinicians [in Germany] and has, for decades and with virtual impunity, sought to manipulate and distort scientific evidence linking smoking to fatal diseases."

One of the nation's most respected research institutes is the Verum Foundation, which was founded by the tobacco industry to lend the "appearance of independence" to the research it funded, according the minutes of a German Cigarette Industry Association board meeting in 1990.

Wolfgang Oberrecht, the cigarette association's deputy managing director, says that it's no longer linked to Verum. "We don't do any research at this time," he says. "I can tell you we are committed to the protection of nonsmokers," he notes.

Still, Verum's executive director, Franz Adlkofer, has worked with the tobacco industry since the mid-1970s. According to industry documents, he was actively involved in suppressing and distorting scientific evidence on the dangers of smoking.

"Germany is the only highly developed, highly educated country where tobacco companies are still considered legitimate with researchers and academics, and still have such huge influence with government," says Mr. Glantz.

Last week, Chancellor Angela Merkel's party, the Christian Democratic Union, held a convention financed by Phillip Morris, according to the German Cancer Research Center. The group estimates that the tobacco industry spends nearly $400 million each year on advertising and lobbying in Germany.

The industry also appears to influence legislation. This fall, German media reported that government talks on a smoking ban were centered on a document that was nearly identical to a position paper the industry had issued on Sept. 13, 2006.

Politicians maintain that the document had little influence in the end. "The main issue being debated was personal freedom," says Verena Herhoff, spokesperson for the ruling Christian Democrats. "The tobacco companies weren't a factor."

Germany was also one of only three countries that fought to weaken the provisions of World Health Organization's 192-nation treaty on tobacco control signed in 2003. And it battled to water down EU tobacco legislation, particularly provisions to limit advertising.

When its efforts failed, it filed suit with the European Court of Justice in 2003, arguing that advertising regulation was the domain of individual EU states. Only last month did the government bow to the EU mandates and enact an advertising ban.

The tobacco lobby's influence in Germany dates back to 1948, when the German Cigarette Industry Association was founded. In the 1970s, it started forming scientific-research institutes that doled out tens of millions of dollars in grants.

The AJPH has identified 60 researchers who received money from the industry since 1975, many of whom were top scientists at respected German universities or key players in policy development.

Karl Überla, for example, accepted more than $1.2 million while in thoseto study the health effects of second-hand smoke while president of the Federal Health Office (FHO) in the 1980s and head of epidemiology at Ludwig-Maximilian University in Munich.

Internal industry documents claimed, "Professor Überla had to accept the [association] position on passive smoking." Indeed, in a 1990 letter to the US Environmental Protection Agency, Dr. Überla claimed that scientists outside the US reject the notion "that passive smoking is causally associated with lung cancer." But health risks associated with secondhand smoke had been well established by that time.

The industry's list of grantees and paid consultants also included the president of the German Association of Pulmonology, future EU health commissioners, and directors of a top public health agencies and medical school departments.

The industry tended to favor research that posited alternative causes for tobacco-related disease, or suggested smoking was safe. Unfavorable results were sometimes suppressed.

Some researchers appeared to have had little idea what they were getting into when they accepted funds. One scientist even sent a letter thanking the association for not responding to his request. "Retrospectively, I am even grateful to you," he wrote, "I did not load my conscience ... with the burden of accepting research funding that I would regret today."

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