Global tobacco protocol short of 6 countries to become international treaty in 2018

A cigarette vendor in the street of Indonesia. Photo by: Ikhlasul Amal / CC BY-NC

MANILA — Illicit trade in tobacco products is costing governments billions of dollars, and is undermining global efforts toward tobacco control. A protocol aimed at eliminating tobacco illicit trade aims to address this, but five years since its adoption, it has yet to gather enough support to come into force.

The Protocol to Eliminate Illicit Trade on Tobacco is the first protocol under the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, and was adopted in November 2012 by parties to the convention. The protocol is seen as a tool to help curb tobacco consumption, whose low price rates — particularly if purchased through illegal means — has become attractive and affordable to tobacco users in low- and middle-income countries. They comprise nearly 80 percent of the more than 1 billion tobacco users worldwide, contributing largely to the more than 6 million people deaths annually from tobacco-related causes.

Addressing illicit tobacco trade will also help funnel revenues back to governments, creating fiscal space to invest in causes such as better health care for their population.

But to date, only 34 countries party to the convention have ratified it. And in Asia Pacific, where billions of dollars are lost to government revenues from illicit tobacco trade, only one country, Mongolia, has ratified the protocol.

“We need 40 parties before the protocol can become an international treaty,” Austin Rowan, an expert on tobacco illicit trade, said during a roundtable meeting on the subject at the World Health Organization’s regional office in Western Pacific.

And this needs to happen by July 2, 2018, 90 days before the start of the eighth session of the parties to the FCTC taking place in October 2018 in Geneva. If not, parties to the protocol will have to wait until 2020 to commence a meeting.

“We cannot have a standalone meeting of the parties. It should be back to back with the conference of parties,” Patrick Musavuli, technical officer at the WHO FCTC secretariat and present at the roundtable meeting, said.

‘No guarantees’

The secretariat has been trying to get countries to sign to the protocol since it was introduced in 2012, but multiple challenges have prevented them from doing so. Among them is the challenge of getting support for its ratification and implementation across government department and ministries, as well as raising the costs required to implement a tracking and tracing system that will be an essential tool toward tobacco illicit trade elimination.

There’s also the challenge of tobacco industry interference. While tobacco companies often position themselves as one with governments in battling illicit trade, several reports have revealed they are complicit in the smuggling of cigarettes to boost sales while evading tax duties.

Some countries may have intentions, but have failed to follow the process.

“There’ve been countries that have completed the process at national level, and then sent [the document] to their permanent missions in New York that [should] be sending it to the United Nations treaty section, but instead sent it to a WHO office [or the FCTC Secretariat],” Musavuli said. “So it’s not taken as valid.”

Others meanwhile need only to understand the benefits of the protocol.

“We’ve seen in some countries they just need an explanation to the parliament to really understand what are the benefits if the country ratifies the protocol, so that’s why we have a panel of experts [who can provide] this kind of technical explanation [when requested],” he said said.

What the protocol does

Illicit trade on tobacco is costing governments a “fortune.” European Union countries lose about 10 million euros ($11.8 million) in revenue to illicit tobacco trade every year, said Rowan.

“Some countries and regions tackle them very well, but it’s like a chain with the risk on the weakest link,” he said. “The problem is, you can have all the legislation and all the best customs that you have, but your real problem is your neighbors. If they are not doing any enforcement, then you can still suffer from illicit trade.”

The protocol aims to address this by applying measures toward supply chain control, but also in promoting international cooperation. Supply chain control includes rigorous licensing of those involved in tobacco, from manufacturers to importers. It also includes application of due diligence in tracking and tracing where tobacco products “fall off the legal trail,” including in free economic zones.

“Free zones are an area which worldwide causes problems in relation to illicit trade. One of the things they do [here] is they tend to mingle cheap products, for example textiles, with cigarettes. So when [an order from a free zone] arrives in the recipient country, it shows 1000 containers of packages of textiles,” Rowan said.

But “intermingling will be prohibited, and will be called a criminal offense under the protocol,” he added.

Through international cooperation meanwhile, countries will have a legal base to exchange information, including on best practices on how to address particular illicit tobacco trade activities, and cooperate on investigations.

This is why, Rowan said, the more countries ratify the protocol, the stronger it gets and the “closer we are to elimination.”

Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to reflect that the protocol is currently short of 6 countries, not 7, as previously mentioned by a WHO officer. A technical officer from the organization has since clarified the number.

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About the author

  • Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.