European Parliament adopts more ambitious Cancer Plan than Commission

Plan approved in December and by full Parliament on 15 February


Roma, 18 feb. – After eighteen months of intense work, countless expert meetings and difficult negotiations, the European Parliament approved its Beating Cancer plan on February 15, one year after the publication of the European Commission’s Cancer Plan. This vote finalises the long and meticulous work done by the specially-appointed Beating Cancer (BECA) Committee and its members. Structured around four action areas – notably prevention, early detection, quality of treatment and the improvement of the quality of life of cancer patients and care workers – the ambitious plan received a lot of attention among the political groups and from European stakeholders. Yet, after long hours of negotiation, the Committee was able to reach a satisfying agreement for all. Recommending strong and cutting-edge policies to tackle the insufficiencies in screening programmes, cross-border cooperation between health centres, the “right to be forgotten”, funding and innovative research, the Parliament’s report sets forth an inspiring plan to fight this dreadful disease. Cancer is the plague of the 21st century. With nearly two million deaths each year, it is Europe’s second most important cause of death, after cardiovascular diseases. Yet, scientists estimate that 40% of these deaths could be prevented through various healthcare policies. Led by rapporteur Véronique Trillet Lenoir, the BECA Committee sought to resolve certain shortcomings of existing health legislations as well as establish concrete recommendations to facilitate and simplify access to quality healthcare across Europe. As part of its “EU Verified” Series on the Beating Cancer Plan, Askanews spoke to BECA members to get their final thoughts on the plan and the journey to get the plan finalised. Equal access to cancer treatment and cross-border healthcare were among the important issues MEPs were confronted with. Revelations from the healthcare community that while it is possible for Europeans to seek treatment in different countries, this is made difficult by the lack of information and the complexities in data exchange and insurance contracts. Croatian MEP Tomislav Sokol stated “we have emphasised the need to facilitate the process through a holistic revision of the cross-border healthcare frameworks, in order to simplify them and make them more accessible for patients. […] Delivering updated, certified and transparent information to citizens and professionals on cancer causes, treatments and EU legislation is crucial”. The issue of health data and improving cancer research was particularly crucial for the members of the Committee. MEP Sara Cerdas, highlighting the current difficulties in transforming available data into useful information for cancer treatment, called for better epidemiological cohort studies and a strengthening of research networks to enable health experts to discover new types of cancer, associate risk factors with them and develop adequate treatments. Fellow S&D MEP Nicolás González Casares raised similar concerns, stating “Europe is rich in health data, but does not always make the best use of it. This is why it is necessary to join forces between the scientific communities of the different Member States. The […] Plan includes a good proposal such as the Knowledge Centre, which should serve this purpose, as well as the European Health Data Space, which should be set up before the end of this legislature”. The Plan seeks to provide better protection for workers against cancer-causing chemicals. Highlighting that dangerous substances at work are responsible for more than 120,000 work-related cancers each year, the Committee called on Member States to facilitate the recognition of and compensation of these cancers and reinforce the capacities of labour inspectors to monitor safety at work. Basing its findings on the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) assessments, the Plan also recommends stronger information requirements for carcinogenicity under the Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) in line with the EU’s Chemicals Strategy and the upcoming REACH revision to ensure no consumer products contain carcinogenic chemicals. Exposure to endocrine disruptors is another element which the Commission and Member States will need to address and ultimately reduce. Speaking about radon, a radioactive gas present in certain areas of the EU and increasing the prevalence of lung cancer, MEP Pietro Fiocchi from the ECR group stated: “the inclusion of the radon problem in the BECA Report will generate the provision of adequate resources for carrying out extensive monitoring not only in public buildings, but especially in private homes. In addition, it will have to be taken into account in the energy efficiency of the buildings, since the normal interventions to avoid the dispersion of heat inside the houses could be counterproductive for buildings affected by radon gas”. As the most cost-effective strategy to fight cancer, prevention is also at the heart of the plan and led to many hours of negotiations between the different parliamentary groups. From promoting a healthy lifestyle and a plants-based food diet with a reduction of meat consumption to supporting the goal of a “tobacco-free generation”, the Plan addresses the key risk factors and social determinants of cancer. On the issue of e-cigarettes and alternative nicotine products, taking a harm reduction approach, the Committee emphasised that, while flavours should be restricted to young people to prevent them from starting to use e-cigarettes, these devices can allow smokers to progressively quit smoking and therefore should be considered as an efficient and less harmful alternative. On this point, MEP Peter Liese said “I am happy that we found a balanced wording on e-cigarettes. They are an option for heavy smokers to stop smoking and they are definitely much less problematic for our health. Still, we should make sure that young people do not start, which is why we asked the Commission to propose a ban for flavours that particularly attract children”. This view is shared by fellow EPP MEP Aldo Patriciello who, in a statement, expressed his content at: “the European Parliament has now recognized harm reduction as a critical tool in prevention. It is a policy approach that has yet to be explored in this area at Union level and used correctly. I see a lot of potential for the Citizens of Europe”. MEP Kateřina Konečná showed more reservation regarding the Committee’s recommendations, specifically on the issue of taxation and tobacco products. She stated “I generally support the harm reduction approach because it shows us that higher taxation for some groups of the population (especially the socially weak) has no further effect. […] Unfortunately, in this area, the plan is, in my opinion, very conservative and sticks to the old tools and solutions that turned out not to work”. MEP Aldo Patriciello also publicly called on the Commission to adopt a more modern and pragmatic position regarding alternative tobacco products such as e-cigarettes. He urged the Commision to communicate clearly that all tobacco products did not cause the same levels of harm: “preventing youth initiation, which is a matter of restricting youth-appealing flavours and access, does not stand in contradiction to allowing differentiated regulations based on a scientific assessment of harm.” The Committee’s recommendations on alcohol also led to much controversy in certain EU countries such as France and Italy. The wine sector – which provides thousands of jobs and contributes significantly to the economy of these countries – was particularly targeted in the Committee’s report. Representatives of the wine industry as well as MEPs and ministers, including France’s Agriculture Minister, Julien Denormandie, expressed their concern over several provisions which placed alcohol and wine consumption on a par with smoking. More specifically, the BECA Committee warned of the risks of wine consumption – in any amount – as a serious risk factor for a number of cancers, including mouth, pharynx, larynx, oesophagus or liver. MEP Nicolás González Casares stated: “it is clear that emphasis needs to be placed on this public communication because, while it is true that in relation to tobacco there is a clear perception of risk, this is not the case in relation to alcohol, a carcinogenic factor identified by the IARC more than 30 years ago.” After long debates in the Parliament, centre-right MEPs succeeded in adding the term “harmful” in relation to alcohol consumption and convinced the Parliament to replace warning labels on wine bottles with “moderate and responsible drinking information”. An amendment which sought to only prohibit alcohol sponsorships in sports events where there would be minors was also adopted. MEP Pietro Fiocchi expressed his satisfaction, stating: “I was critical of the demonization of the wine that was intended to be made and the health labelling of this. Fortunately, we were able to impose the distinction between “moderate and responsible alcohol consumption” and “excessive alcohol consumption”. Apart from these few points, the MEPs all expressed their satisfaction with the overall recommendations put forward in the Plan and their hope regarding their implementation. The European Cancer Plan presents an ambitious, thoroughly thought strategy to tackle cancer and there is no doubt the MEPs will closely follow its implementation, now that the report has been approved. This new task of implementing the recommendations of the BECA Committee and of the European Commission will be organised according to the Commission’s roadmap published at the beginning of November, last year. €4 billion have already been allocated to this phase, which will surely prove to be very challenging. The elimination of the many disparities between EU Member States in terms of access to screening programmes, quality healthcare treatment and exposure to carcinogetic substances will require reinforced cooperation between health authorities and the Commission as well as significant funding over the years to come. The Plan will also be reinforced by the adoption of affiliated regulation such as the Tobacco Excise Directive, the EU Pharmaceutical legislation or the European Health Data Space, scheduled this year.