WHO’s anti-smoking efforts fuel the rise of illicit cigarettes – study

Organisation: Position: Deadline Date: Location:

cigaretteswebThe World Health Organisation meets this week in Washington DC and will discuss the rise of illicit cigarettes – which, perversely,  is increasingly caused by the agency’s own efforts against smoking, writes Dr Roger Bate, of the American Enterprise Institute, in Forbes.

“The World Health Organisation meets next week in Washington DC and will discuss the rise of illicit cigarettes, which are increasingly caused by WHO efforts against smoking. Smoking cigarettes kills millions every year and the WHO established the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) in 2005 to lower the death toll. The FCTC encourages developing nations to copy mature market policies of raising taxes and introducing and then expanding regulation on tobacco products.

“As a result overall smoking has probably declined, but illicit cigarettes have flourished. Smuggling major brands from low tax areas, like North Carolina, to high tax areas, like New York, was historically the main form of illicit trade. But as the major cigarette manufacturers have worked with national governments to secure their supply chains, such trade has diminished. Its fast-growing replacement is a much harder form of trade to combat.

“Illicit whites are legally manufactured cigarettes illegally imported into myriad markets. For example, dozens of companies in Paraguay and the United Arab Emirates produce tens of billions of cigarettes each year, the vast majority of which are smuggled into other nations. My research team asked consumers in London and Buenos Aires whether they ever bought these products: roughly a fifth had. In addition, we found that illicit whites were easily available in all ten cities we assessed. The poorer the city the more likely one could buy illicit whites. In richer cities, where customs and police prevent easy access to illicit whites, people are buying more raw tobacco and rolling their own.”

Bate writes: “Our results are in my paper published this week. Perhaps the most interesting finding is that a significant minority of smokers are annoyed about high tax rates and happy to buy illicit products. Anti-tobacco policymakers seem to ignore that smokers are human actors. Many smokers may be addicts but that doesn’t mean they are stupid. Some rationally avoid paying high prices (often 3 or 4 times lower), even if doing so is illegal.

“WHO anti-smoking advocates are also easy to ridicule. The WHO Syria representative recently suggested that Syria should prioritise tobacco control at a time of total chaos in the country. And WHO praises Turkmenistan for its anti-tobacco policies and holds meetings in that country, which is one of the most oppressive on the planet.

“It was inevitable and perhaps necessary that WHO would react to the rise of illicit tobacco. It has established the Protocol to Eliminate Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products (ITP) under the FCTC in 2012. While in principle sound, the ITP faces numerous challenges in implementation. The primary objective of the ITP is to control the supply chain of tobacco products. The spill-over effects of production and trade in tobacco requires most, if not all, jurisdictions to share aims and ambitions; without that, coordination is likely to fail. Yet WHO has no expertise in trade policy or overcoming economic objections to health priorities. WHO also has zero experience in combating organised crime. And you can bet that crime organizations and the governments that protect them, such as Belarus, UAE, Paraguay and others, will undermine coordination.

“ITP has some excellent guidelines but it is incumbent on individual governments to control demand and prevent illicit production. Voluntary support for the Protocol is patchy: For example, UK, Russia, India and China are parties to the FCTC but have not ratified the ITP; US is not even party to the FCTC. Studies of illicit activity demonstrate that illegal operations are highly dynamic and respond swiftly to deterrent measures. It is likely that only with the cooperation of the entire supply chain (including the major cigarette companies) will illicit tobacco be limited. However, FCTC utterly rejects agreements with industry involvement.

“Cigarette producers and any group ever funded by them are explicitly excluded from implementation of ITP; this includes Interpol which received funding from Philip Morris International. This is idiotic. Interpol knows more about illicit trade than any other government or private group.

“The head of the FCTC says that allowing big tobacco to take part in any future agreements is like letting the fox into the hen house. But Margarete Hofmann, policy director of the EU anti-fraud office, is critical of such thinking: “That would assume we have a hen house – we don’t,” she told reporters in March. Even normally efficient and organised nations like Germany are having trouble combating organised criminals and tobacco smugglers. Simply put, the only really successful arrangements to control tobacco smuggling were undertaken between the European Commission and the major cigarette manufacturers, yet FCTC rejects this approach.

“Meanwhile the illicit tobacco market is flourishing. Without assistance from international security experts and tobacco producers, and no funds to offer signatories in technical assistance, the WHO’s Illicit Trade Protocol has only a slim chance of being implemented in emerging markets, even if nations ratify it.”

The World Health Organization (WHO) states that smoking cigarettes is the largest cause of preventable premature death globally. The WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) entered into force in 2005 with an aim to lower the death toll.
FCTC has adopted a policy of encouraging developing nations to follow the demand reduction strategy of mature markets in raising taxes and introducing and then expanding regulation on tobacco products. In many cases such policies result in the rise of illicit tobacco (either counterfeits or legally produced smuggled cigarettes), especially where policy changes are implemented rapidly and enforcement capacity is limited. According to KPMG, illicit tobacco makes up roughly 10 percent of the global cigarette market, and the figure is rising.
This paper reports on a novel empirical assessment of smoker opinion and availability of illicit whites (smuggled legally produced cigarettes), which shows a sizeable minority of smokers bought illicit whites in most cases because they are far cheaper. It is also established (across 10 cities) that illicit whites are easily available in most markets, even in the wealthy markets of London and Singapore. Low education levels are correlated with widespread illicit white availability.

Forbes magazine article
AEI Economic Perspectives abstract

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