Time to act against illicit tobacco

A no smoking sign. Approximately one person dies from a tobacco-related disease every 6 seconds, equivalent to almost 6 million people a year. Photo by: Roo Reynolds / CC BY-NC

There was a time when smuggling was seen as a romantic industry, its ranks swelled by swashbuckling characters like the Spanish Bandoleros of the 1800s. Riding Andalusian stallions, clothed in long capes and wide-brimmed hats, they smuggled tobacco and still found the time to fight Napoleon’s invaders.

There’s nothing romantic about today’s illicit tobacco trade. A business of truly global proportions, it has a track record of filching funds from where they’re needed most. It’s no exaggeration to say that the world has insufficient hospital wards, nurses and doctors to face the increase in cancer sufferers, because criminals have diverted tax revenues into their own pockets.

It’s difficult to estimate the lost tax, but even a conservative 2009 estimate suggested $31 billion was missing from government coffers because of the illicit trade. Other reputable researchers say the number is even higher — perhaps as much as $50 billion. The main victims are low- and middle-income countries that need the money most, and of course the consumers turned into addicts by more accessible and affordable tobacco products.

That’s why this year’s World No Tobacco Day on May 31 is devoted to the issue of the illicit trade. The World Health Organization and the Secretariat of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control are urging member states to join the expanding group of parties that have signed the Protocol to Eliminate the Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products, an international treaty in its own right negotiated under the umbrella of the WHO FCTC.

Tobacco-related illness is one of the biggest public health threats the world has ever faced. Approximately one person dies from a tobacco-related disease every 6 seconds, equivalent to almost 6 million people a year. That is forecast to rise to more than 8 million people a year by 2030, with more than 80 percent of these preventable deaths occurring among people living in low- and middle-income countries.

The protocol will not only strengthen the hands of governments in combating this pernicious business. It will also increase tax revenue, improve the health of the world’s citizens and cut the financial lifeline of those who challenge law enforcers such as organized criminal gangs.

Criminal groups are not the only beneficiaries. Petty peddlers make a living where border controls are lax or local officials can be bribed to look the other way. Research shows that insurgent forces have also muscled into the trade in the Middle East and Africa. In central and eastern Africa for example, rebels accused of serious human right violations have been shown to use the illegal tobacco trade to finance their activities.

Yet it’s the tobacco industry that benefits most from the activities of bootleggers and smugglers. Illicit tobacco products come from factories too — and all too often the trail of evidence is traced back to legally sanctioned manufacturers.

There is a wealth of material to prove the point. Several large tobacco companies paid $1.7 billion in fines to the Canadian authorities from 2008 to 2010 after they were accused of  smuggling conspiracy charges; Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs in the U.K. told an inquiry that tobacco industry supplies to certain countries are “considerably higher than legitimate local demand.” And paperwork disclosed by the tobacco industry as a result of U.S. court cases provided detailed evidence of manufacturers using illicit routes to expand sales and win new markets, for example in Asia and Latin America.

Given the forces ranged against it, how would the protocol make a difference? Probably the biggest change would increase control over the supply chain. Tracking and tracing systems — with costs charged to the tobacco industry itself but controlled by governments — would show whether and where products have been diverted into the illicit system.

Imports, exports and manufacturing would be licensed, legal sanctions against smugglers and others engaged in the trade would be strengthened and international cooperation of the illicit trade, and action against it, would be enhanced.

The illicit trade is a many-headed entity, a hydra of illegal activity that harms the gullible and the vulnerable. It will take many years to defeat, but the battle must be waged if we are ever to make progress. The entering into force of the protocol is the critical first step.

To read additional content on global health, go to Focus On: Global Health in partnership with Johnson & Johnson.

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About the author

  • Who vera luiza da costa e silva

    Vera Luiza da Costa e Silva

    Vera Luiza da Costa e Silva is the head of the WHO FCTC Secretariat. She is a medical doctor with a Ph.D. in public health and epidemiology and an MBA for the health sector. For 16 years she coordinated the department of epidemiology and cancer prevention at Brazil’s National Cancer Institute and was involved in legislative, economic, surveillance and regulatory tobacco-control measures, the establishment of a countrywide tobacco control network and the introduction of tobacco products as part of the recently established health regulatory agency.