UN hosts international conference on illicit tobacco trade
Delegates gathered at United Nations Headquarters in New York today for the start of an international conference on the illicit tobacco trade, one of a number of issues covered by a proposed global pact on controlling the substance that is currently under negotiation through the UN World Health Organization (WHO).
Organized by the United States Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the three-day conference aims to develop recommendations on effective measures to address the illicit tobacco trade. These proposals will inform the next negotiating session on the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, set to open this October in Geneva.
A senior WHO official told participants that the illicit trade in tobacco products contributes to the global rise in tobacco consumption by making cigarettes cheaper and more accessible.
"WHO is very concerned about the pernicious public health effects of tobacco smuggling on national and international tobacco control programmes," said Dr. Derek Yach, the agency's Executive Director for Non-Communicable Diseases. Smuggling undermines national pricing policies, deprives governments of revenues used to combat smoking, permits tobacco companies to subvert international cooperation in tobacco control and undermines legal restrictions and health regulations such as those that deal with health warnings and sales to minors, he said.
Speaking to reporters after his address, Dr. Yach said participants at the Conference had agreed that smuggling robs governments of revenue, while making cheap cigarettes available and thus hampering efforts to raise prices in order to reduce consumption.
Dr. Yach called attention to the complicity of tobacco companies, stressing that criminals were not solely responsible for the problem. He noted that several tobacco companies were involved in court cases over allegations that they had actively participated in smuggling.
"The meeting shows that tobacco control has gone beyond the old stages of sticking up a couple of posters and hoping that will do the trick," he said, noting that the Conference brought together officials from a wide spectrum of areas, including customs, law enforcement and international financing, "complementing what is usually seen as a public health area of responsibility."
Smuggled cigarettes account for 6 to 8.5 per cent of global consumption, according to the World Bank. About 355 billion cigarettes a year find their way onto the black market. WHO, which calls tobacco consumption one of the largest preventable causes of death today, estimates that one in two smokers will die from a tobacco-related disease, with tobacco killing over 4 million people every year.