WHO plans to monitor tobacco traceability roll-out

Tobacco tracking and tracing remains a controversial issue, and the World Health Organization has set up a working group to see how well national governments implement these systems.

The decision was taken at the first Meeting of the Parties (MOP1) to the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) Protocol this week, where strong words were spoken about the tobacco industry’s influence on both track-and-trace implementation and illicit trade.

The group will specifically tackle track-and-trace and unique identification (UID) marking covered by the Protocol, intended to track the product from the point of production to the first point of sale, and is with producing a comprehensive report on good practices by the next MOP conference in November 2020.

That will include whether domestic systems implemented by parties to the treaty are compliant with the overarching aim of allowing governments to tell where a pack was produced, by which company, for which intended market, and through which route of supply.

Speaking at a press conference after the event, Dr Vera da Costa e Silva, head of the WHO FCTC Secretariat, stressed that the treaty “includes provisions that ensure that the tobacco industry should not be responsible for actions that [should be] from government.”

“Interference from the tobacco industry is again, in this Protocol, a very important issue that parties should pay attention to…and this is particularly true with the tracking and tracing provisions as the tobacco industry is coming up with systems that the industry controls.”

That creates a situation a bit like the “fox takes care of the chickens,” she claimed during the press conference. “The tobacco industry is involved within illicit trade, as is proved by a number of documents that are made available from a number of litigation cases”, so tobacco companies should foot the bill for track-and-trace but not control it.

The focus on track-and-trace at the press conference suggests the FCTC Secretariat already has qualms about how some systems are being set up in some parts of the world.

One country where there is considerable disagreement about the direction being taken is the UK, which is a party to the FCTC whilst also coming under the auspices of the EU’s Tobacco Products Directive (TPD), which has created a ‘pick-and-mix’ of track-and-trace and security features that member states can choose to place on packs of cigarettes and rolling tobacco.

From May 20 next year, all packs on sale in the UK will have to carry at least five security features, including overt, semi-covert and covert elements to meet the TPD requirements.

Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) published its requirements for security features last month, but drawn swift criticism for its interpretation.

HMRC says all unit packs have to have a unique identifier (UID) – a unique, machine-readable code generated from an alphanumeric code for track-and-trace purposes that’s supplied by the UID issuer appointed in the UK – as well as guilloche and microprint as overt and semi-covert features, respectively.

In addition, packs have to carry two additional covert features: Two anti-stoke inks that do not rely on florescence or illumination and require a purpose built tool or a laboratory to be detected; two molecular taggants embedded within the base material that requires purpose built tools or a laboratory to be detected; or one of each.

“At least one security feature must be provided by somebody who is verified to be independent from the tobacco industry,” says the MRC, and HMRC. It adds that the UID provider can be considered to be an independent option – a position that has some in the security industry concerned.

“The UK’s choice of security features for tobacco products is bitterly disappointing for those involved in tobacco control,” claims Nicola Sudan, secretary general of the International Tax Stamp Association (ITSA) industry group.

ITSA contends that the UID itself should not be considered as a qualifying security feature as it consists simply of a printed or laser-engraved code, with no integrated authentication element.

“You can’t tell if a code is genuine or not simply by looking at it,” says Sudan. “Even if you verify its status online you can’t prove it is genuine because there is a risk of cloning.”

ITSA says it also finds the choice of the other elements “disappointing” drawing comparison with France’s interpretation of the Directive which includes the use of a colour-changing ink as an overt feature, UV-dull paper, UV ink and microprint for semi-covert, and a molecular taggant for covert protection.

The UK’s choice “is unbalanced because the emphasis is on covert features, and the overt features which are important to consumers and retailers are weak,” according to Sudan. “The use of design- and print-based features such as guilloche and microprint preclude the use of more robust security features such as holograms and reactive inks.”

Using the UID as the independent feature means that all the authentication features deployed in the UK may be under industry control, and the ITSA also maintains that puts the HMRC’s position at odds with the spirit of the WHO Protocol.

“It very much looks as if the UK has opened the door for the tobacco industry to control the choice of security features, placing it at odds with the Protocol,” continues Sudan.

 “It’s difficult to see how the UK will be able to honour its obligations under the Protocol, which, as an international law takes precedence over the TPD.”

It is estimated that 10 per cent of all the cigarettes and other tobacco products produced are traded illegally, which equates to tax revenue losses of approximately $30bn a year, although it is widely acknowledged that coming up with an accurate figure is difficult. 

The Protocol also hopes to address that issue by creating a global information-sharing focal point to combat illicit tobacco trade, and also hopes to have a conceptual framework for this drawn up by the next MOP meeting.

Curbing illicit trade would improve pubic health, generate an additional $31bn a year in tax revenues for governments around the world, help cut crime and “curb an important revenue source for the tobacco industry,” said da Costa e Silva.

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