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While WHO celebrates tobacco control protocol, industry has already made its next moves

The global reduction of tobacco use was at the top of the agenda at last week’s Conference of Parties to the World Health Organization Framework Convention for Tobacco Control (FCTC) in Geneva. Dubbed COP8 for short, the session focused not only on the challenges presented by new tobacco products, but also on the thorny issue of how to tackle the sophisticated counter manoeuvres being employed by tobacco multinationals. It was immediately followed by the first Meeting of the Parties (MOP1) to the Protocol to Eliminate Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products, a historic event following the Protocol’s entry into force in September.

With signatories from more than 40 countries, the FCTC is the first legally binding international treaty for the promotion of public health and has been a key weapon in the WHO’s fight against tobacco use. Governments all over the world have used the legal firepower provided by the treaty to pass comprehensive tobacco-control laws, raise taxes, create smoke-free spaces, and influence packaging design.

Naturally, the tobacco lobby would not take this sitting down. Its well-funded lobbyists have been pushing against the tide of reform by muscling in on the anti-counterfeiting protocols designed to foil tobacco smuggling –while R&D departments have been burning the midnight oil to design new and innovative products meant to skirt existing legislation.

Big Tobacco is reframing the debate

Representatives from the tobacco industry were banned from participating in the conference, although it didn’t stop some of their leading lights from setting out their stall in Geneva, nor from arguing that the industry had an important role to play in the debate. Two well-heeled tobacco industry activists, Fred Roeder and Yaël Ossowski, tried to skirt the ban on industry actors from participating by signing up as journalists and get access to the sessions. They were soon ousted by organizers, but not before schmoozing with participants.

Philip Morris International (PMI) was even showcasing its ‘harm-reduction’ products, such as e-cigarettes, in a hotel not far from the convention centre. At the same time, a foundation affiliated with the company was doling out leaflets touting the harm reduction technologies inside the forum. PMI and other companies are calling for the FCTC to endorse the new products as a proven way of moving committed smokers to ‘safer’ alternatives, with a plea for reduced taxation and the leeway to promote them more aggressively.

But that’s not all. One of the sticking points of the debate has always been the trade in illicit tobacco. The tobacco industry claims that counterfeiting is the primary problem, but even its own data show that most of the illicit trade in cigarettes can be traced to packs manufactured by some of the biggest companies in the business. In fact, tobacco companies have long been accused of complicity in smuggling their own cigarettes as a strategy for increasing sales; British American Tobacco, for instance, received a hefty fine from HM Revenue and Customs as recently as 2014 for oversupplying low-tax jurisdictions.

Working towards a more secure and traceable supply chain

Nevertheless, the Protocol to Eliminate Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products is one of the FCTC’s highest-profile campaigns to date, featuring a range of measures designed to combat illicit trade by securing the supply chain through a curated licensing and recording scheme.

In Europe, the EU Tobacco Products Directive of 2014 requires tobacco companies to comply with a new track and trace system that will become obligatory by spring 2019 and means that all cigarette packs are required to have both visible and covert markings to ensure traceability. Each member state will have to appoint an independent ‘ID issuer’ responsible for assigning pack codes, as part of a system that replaces an oft-criticized anti-smuggling agreement between the EC and major tobacco manufacturers.

However, the tobacco industry’s system of choice – Codentify – just happens to have been developed by PMI before being passed to a third-party company, Inexto, run (coincidentally) by former tobacco industry executives. Campaigners fear that this connection may give the tobacco industry overall control over the track-and-trace system.

Violating the terms of the FCTC protocol

In addition to these concerns, many observers have also voiced their worries over whether Codentify will even be able to deliver the protective measures required. The system uses unsecured, commercially available equipment and doesn’t offer any protection against code ‘cloning’ or ‘recycling’; furthermore, codes produced using inkjet printers are vulnerable to tampering.

Yet while Codentify fails to meet WHO best practice standards and violates the FCTC protocol, a recently published EC scientific report from the Joint Research Centre into anti-counterfeiting technologies appears to favour this system as a possible jumping-off point for its approach to wider brand protection issues. This raises questions about whether it’s acceptable for one arm of the EC to back a specific T&T solution at the same time that another department is actively looking to incorporate such a technology into its Tobacco Products Directive (TPD).

Given that one of the articles in the protocol stipulates that the T&T system must be under the government’s control, the transfer of Codentify to Inexto could be seen as a transparent ruse by the tobacco industry to retain control over the supply chain all while appearing to relinquish it.

Industry interference needs to be quashed

During COP8 and MOP1, WHO leadership emphasized the danger not only posed by the illicit trade in tobacco, but also by concerted efforts on behalf of the tobacco industry to undermine the FCTC and its protocols.

Smuggling is just a single thread in a larger tapestry of industry interference, but it is an incredibly important one for law enforcement as well as public health. A brief examination of the motivation behind the industry’s move to control T&T systems exposes it as a cynical ploy by which manufacturers can avoid closer scrutiny and minimize excise tax payments. If real progress is to be made towards reducing the illicit trade in tobacco, it’s crucial that government bodies commit to a truly independent approach, free of the ties – and the protectionist agenda – of Big Tobacco.

This article does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editors or management of EconoTimes

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