A global pact to battle the illegal tobacco trade kicks in this week, with the WHO hailing it as “game-changing” in eliminating widespread health-hazardous and criminal activity.
The treaty, which aims to create an international tracking and tracing system to halt the smuggling and counterfeiting of tobacco products, takes effect today.
When the so-called Protocol to Eliminate Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products achieved the 40 ratifications needed for it to take effect in June last year, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus tweeted that it was a “historic day” and that the world had taken “a vital step towards a tobacco-free world.”
When the pact was first announced in November 2012, Tedros’ predecessor, Margaret Chan (陳馮富珍), described it as “a game-changing treaty.”
“This is how we hem in the enemy,” she said at the time, addressing a meeting in Seoul of WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), describing the protocol as a major step toward “eliminating a very sophisticated criminal activity.”
About 10 percent of the global cigarette market is estimated to go through illicit trade, according to FCTC Secretariat head Vera Luiza da Costa e Silva.
At the same time, one-third of tobacco product exports are eventually traded illegally, which hurts global efforts to reduce tobacco consumption, she said.
“Illicitly traded tobacco products are more affordable, more accessible, especially to young people and to low social economic groups, and they of course increase consumption,” she said.
“And they are unregulated and they don’t display health warnings,” she said, adding that such trade is also closely associated with “international criminal groups and terrorism.”
Da Costa e Silva said illicit tobacco trade is not only detrimental to public health.
It is estimated to cheat governments globally out of about US$31 billion in tax revenues that they otherwise would have generated from legal tobacco sales each year.
“If you consider this in the global situation where there are limited resources for a number of issues this makes a huge difference,” she said.
A major aim of the new treaty is to prevent the illegal trade in the first place.
Agents, suppliers and tobacco manufacturers will all have to be licensed. Manufacturers will have to carry out checks on customers to ensure they are genuine or if they have associations with criminal organizations.
Under the pact, countries will also be obliged to establish “tracking and tracing” systems, at the national, regional and international levels, within five years.
One important aspect of both the protocol and its parent treaty, the FCTC, is the effort to block tobacco companies from influencing the process.
“The industry is never a partner. It should never have a seat around the table,” Da Costa e Silva said.
She expressed concern that tobacco companies would try to infiltrate and influence the next meeting of the FCTC members, set to be held in Geneva next week, as well as the first meeting of the members of the new protocol, scheduled a week later.
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