Public health is once again climbing up the agenda of the European Union as new people step into two key posts, writes Tony Sheldon

The unlikely team of an Irish barrister and an English Conservative are the new faces who will shape the future of European public health.

But David Byrne and Dr Caroline Jackson share a no-nonsense pragmatism backed by a reshuffled civil service and a revitalised health committee. Tough new anti-smoking proposals are to be followed by a new set of public health programmes that will set the scene for the next decade.

The EU ends 1999 with a raft of new policies, including tough proposals on smoking (see Westminster diary).

The plans have been forwarded to next year's Portuguese presidency and have to be considered by the European Parliament, where the legal and economic affairs committees could raise objections.

But with no outright opposition from any of the commissioners, the signs are good for final approval by the end of 2000.

Andrew Hayes, EU liaison officer for the Association of Cancer Leagues, says the plans were another piece in the jigsaw of wider EU strategy. He particularly welcomes the banning of words like 'mild' or 'light' from cigarette packs, arguing:

'There is no such thing as a safe cigarette.'

The second area for EU action is mental health which, at the insistence of the current Finnish presidency, is to be included in future public health programmes.

Finnish social affairs minister Eva Biaudet says, 'There is no health without mental health', and argues that mental health policy and promotion has long taken second place.

Former British junior health minister and adviser on mental health to the World Health Organisation John Bowis says: 'It is in areas such as mental health, the fastest- growing health burden in the world, that the EU could really make its mark.'

The commission has been asked to set up an EU mental health monitoring system.

But the success of any resurgent EU public health policy will depend on internal manoeuvrings. Following this year's European elections, a centre-left Parliament has been replaced by a centre-right one.

And while the public health committee is pushing issues, the larger plenary sessions of parliament could lead to public health suffering at the hands of more commercial concerns.

At the same time the European Commission, the EU's civil service, has been shaken up. Public health has left the former social affairs and employment directorate general, where it was always seen as the poor relation.

It is now in a new directorate, teamed with consumer protection, where the civil servants are seen to be more like-minded. But the priority for the new directorate is food safety, and public health could once more be sidelined.

A new public health framework seems to be up for grabs and could become part of a rethought health and consumer protection framework.

Director of the European Health Management Association Philip Berman says: 'The existing programmes are now winding down and we simply do not yet know what will replace them.'