Faux pas by ministry brings state under risk of fine

Oliver Kund
, reporter
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Photo: Kristjan Teedema

On Monday, the draft tobacco act ambitiously triggered by health and labour minister Jevgeni Ossinovski reached the government with cuts. Among other things, it no longer contains the requirement to put tobacco products away from buyer eye in stores. 

It’s rather plain, actually, the entire story. For a background: the backbone to the bill was to be the EU tobacco directive issued two years ago, the adoption of which is for member states mandatory. The deadline to harmonize local law is May 20th and should the state miss that, Estonia is under threat of infringement proceedings.

Having become a minister in mid-September last year, this January Mr Ossinovski (30) successfully shaped part one of the directive into law. But already then, Estonian tobacco producers complained that five months would be too short to pot the requirements into practice.  

The second half of the directive, however, turned into a nightmare. In the winter, social ministry decided to complement the bill with a string of policy ideas included in tobacco policy green book which were agreed as beneficial for public health.

The unexpected step by the ambitious young minister came as a surprise to governmental parties and entrepreneurs alike. One after another, the ministries were late to provide needed feedback and once they did, they accused Mr Ossinovski in deficient impact analysis and attempts to overdo the green book provisions.

«We saw that the governmental agencies were in great trouble because the bill diverged from the directive in several issues and the new topics hit the ministries unexpectedly,» recalls Estonian Tobacco producers Association chairman Taavi Salumets.

While the merchants launched a forceful lobby against tobacco being pushed under counter, the clock was mercilessly ticking away. Fearing that as the bill is delayed the directive may be late in ratification, Team Ossinovski at the last minute deleted the add-ons from the bill and on Monday sent to the government a bill composed of the directive only. But the blunder is already a reality because even is the government manages to send the bill swiftly to the parliament, it’s still on knife’s edge whether Riigikogu succeeds to pass it as law by May 20th.

A directive being late in application is nothing extraordinary as such. Meanwhile, what is notable is how the ministry has played itself into a cornel like this.

«Originally, it was planned to submit the second part in February. What happened was that for various reasons the process of putting the second bill together was delayed,» explained Mr Ossinovski.

The minister said the problems begun by the EU leaving too short a time for the directive to enter into force, neither did it provide guidelines for the implementing provisions needed. On top of that, the ministry employee responsible for the bill became pregnant. To the knowledge of Postimees, it is a public secret at social ministry that the officials were simply too slow in writing the directive into law. They could not keep up with the ambition of the young minister.

«Indeed, it isn’t good – might have been done as one bill, now we will have to have three,» assessed Mr Ossinovski. Meaning that things like stuffing cigarettes under the counter, domestic distance selling and monitoring purchases regarding compliance of minors will only be written into law this fall.

A fiery critic of the adventure, justice minister Urmas Reinsalu (IRL) said he found no fault with the new thinned version of the bill. But he said Mr Ossinovski erred against the plan to cut legislation by overcrowding the bill.

«My opinion is that directives will be adopted in clear accordance of the contour of the directive,» said Mr Reinsalu.