WHO prepares Protocol to Eliminate Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products

The World Health Organization (WHO) is urging Member States to sign the Protocol to Eliminate the Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products as part of its campaign for World No Tobacco Day on 31 May.

WHO said that eliminating the illicit trade in tobacco would generate an annual tax windfall of $31 billion for governments, improve public health, help cut crime and curb an important revenue source for the tobacco industry.

WHO Director-General Margaret Chan said, “The Protocol offers the world a unique legal instrument to counter and eventually eliminate a sophisticated criminal activity.” She added, “Fully implemented, it will replenish government revenues and allow more spending on health.”

So far, eight countries have ratified the Protocol, short of the target of 40 needed for it to become international law. Once that happens, the Protocol’s provisions on securing the supply chain, enhanced international cooperation and other safeguards will come into force.

The Protocol requires 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 Protocol faces overt and covert resistance from the tobacco industry,” says Dr Vera da Costa e Silva, Head of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control Secretariat. “Manufacturers know that once implemented, it will become much harder to hook young people and the poor into tobacco addiction.”

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 (who generally have lower incomes) and cuts government revenues, reducing the resources available for socioeconomic development, especially in low-income countries that depend heavily on consumption taxes. This money might otherwise be spent on the provision of public services, including health care.

While publicly stating its support for action against the illicit trade, the tobacco industry’s behind-the-scenes behaviour has been very different. Internal industry documents released as a result of court cases demonstrate that the tobacco industry has actively fostered the illicit trade globally. It also works to block implementation of tobacco control measures, like tax increases and pictorial health warnings, by arguing they will fuel the illicit trade.

“Public health is engaged in a pitched battle against a ruthless industry,” says Dr Douglas Bettcher, Director of the WHO’s Department for the Prevention of Noncommunicable Diseases. “On this World No Tobacco Day, 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.”



WHO Headquarters exterior

Da Costa e Silva reading the protocol

Da Costa e Silva among others walking away

SOUNDBITE (English) Vera da Costa e Silva, Head of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control Secretariat:

“We have so far eight parties to the protocol, we need 40 for it to become an international law and then make parties cooperate together to eliminate illicit trade.”

. SOUNDBITE (English) Vera da Costa e Silva, Head of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control Secretariat:

“The challenges are usually because of the strong interference of the tobacco industry. The tobacco industry is hijacking the protocol to eliminate illicit trade by trying to rewrite the provisions.”

SOUNDBITE (English) Vera da Costa e Silva, Head of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control Secretariat:

“The tobacco industry uses the protocol and uses the illicit trade argument to counter tobacco control measures, they also offer to governments alternatives to the protocol to eliminate illicit trade, to deal with illicit trade, so they are creating tracking and tracing systems that is called Codentify, they are offering training to custom officers and they are using front groups to train people and to convince governments not to take care by themselves of the illicit trade problem.”