WHO slams tobacco industry actions on illicit sales

Man smoking no-smoking signThe World Health Organization has accused the tobacco industry of working against measures that could eliminate the illicit trade in tobacco products.

Big tobacco companies are paying lip-service to action against illicit tobacco sales whilst at the same time undermining those efforts for its own interests, according to the agency.

Eliminating illicit trade in tobacco would generate an annual tax windfall of $31bn for governments around the world, says the WHO, whilst also improving public health and cutting crime.

The claims have been made by the WHO in advance of World No Tobacco Day on May 31, and in the midst of an effort to persuade World Health Assembly (WHA) member states to sign a new Protocol to Eliminate the Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products.

The Protocol covers provisions to secure the supply chain and - according to its director-general Margaret Chan - creates "a unique legal instrument to counter and eventually eliminate a sophisticated criminal activity."

So far, eight countries have ratified the treaty, short of the target of 40 needed for it to become international law, and the WHO claims it is facing "overt and covert resistance" from the tobacco industry which fears that it will curb an important revenue source.

If the target threshold is reached, the Protocol commits signatories to eliminate all forms of illicit trade in tobacco products.

It covers a wide range of measures relating to the tobacco supply chain, including the licensing of imports, exports and manufacture of tobacco products; the establishment of tracking and tracing systems and the imposition of penal sanctions on those responsible for illicit trade. It would also criminalise illicit production and cross border smuggling.
The illicit tobacco trade offers products at lower prices, primarily by avoiding government taxes through smuggling, illegal manufacturing and counterfeiting. Cheaper tobacco encourages younger tobacco users and cuts government revenues that might otherwise be spent on the provision of public services, including health care, says the WHO.

Dr Vera da Costa e Silva, head of the WHO's Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) secretariat, said: "Manufacturers know that once implemented, it will become much harder to hook young people and the poor into tobacco addiction."

Internal industry documents released as a result of court cases demonstrate that the tobacco industry has actively fostered the illicit trade globally, says the WHO. At the same time, it has tried to block implementation of tobacco control measures, like tax increases and pictorial health warnings, "by arguing they will fuel the illicit trade".

Tobacco giants Philip Morris International and British American Tobacco have just sued the UK government in a bid to block new legislation bringing in plain packaging and very large health warnings for cigarettes. They argue that aside from depriving them of trademarks without compensation the new rules will encourage counterfeiting and smuggling.

Big tobacco insists it supports the Protocol, with PMI's vice president of illicit trade strategies and prevention, Alvise Giustiniani, saying recently that by paving the way for controls such as tracking and tracing, licensing, and due diligence procedures to become law around the world, it is a "positive step forward."

'Ruthless industry'

Nevertheless, Douglas Bettcher, director of the WHO's Department for the Prevention of Noncommunicable Diseases insists that "public health is engaged in a pitched battle against a ruthless industry."

"WHO and its partners are showing the ends that the tobacco industry goes to in the search for profits, including on the black market, and by ensnaring new targets, including young children, to expand its deadly trade," he adds.

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