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April 13th, 2015:

Undercover investigators highlight illicit tobacco trade in Gateshead

Homes, pubs, shops and businesses targeted by test purchasers in effort to raise awareness among public and law makers

Illegal cigarettes seized as part of a raid on Tyneside could contain human faeces, rat droppings or dead flies.

A team of undercover investigators uncovered “widespread” trade in illicit tobacco on a two-day visit to Gateshead.

Former Scotland Yard Detective Chief Inspector Will O’Reilly led the test purchase operation on Tuesday and Wednesday across the borough.

Since November 2011, Will has been conducting the research on behalf of Philip Morris International (PMI) – the global cigarette and tobacco company, which includes Marlboro among its products – to check on new counterfeits and to raise economic and health issues related to the black market.

His team of former police officers from around Europe, whose identities cannot be revealed, visit pubs, homes and a range of shops and businesses in an effort to make buys, before passing their information on to local Trading Standards teams.

In Gateshead, the team made successful buys at more than 20 locations across the two days, acquiring hundreds of cigarettes and tobacco pouches.

Will said: “Since I started I have carried out visits to 80 or 90 parliamentary constituencies around the country, and since the beginning of the year we have done about 12.

“The North East is no different from any other area in that there is widespread sales of illicit tobacco, but there seems to be a lot more sales advertised on social media sites and buyers going to people’s homes here.”

There are three types of illicit tobacco that the investigators look out for.

The first are ‘diverted products’ sold only in foreign countries at a cheaper price and then smuggled into the UK to be sold, while the second are counterfeit versions of familiar brands.

But it is the last group, known as ‘illicit whites’, which are cigarettes manufactured for the sole purpose of being smuggled into the UK and sold illegally but buyers have no idea what is in them. Tests have revealed traces of arsenic, rat droppings, human faeces, dead flies and more.

Will said: “We are able to buy these from car washes, pet shops, furniture warehouses, houses, pubs, corner shops and more. It is more prevalent is more deprived areas where there are more smokers but less disposable income.

“The HMRC say at least £2.1bn is lost to the treasury each year from the illicit market and the trade helps to fund organised crime and even terrorism. Health risks also include the fact that many of the illicit cigarettes lack fire retardant and have been found to be responsible for house fires.”

Peter Wright, Gateshead Council’s Environmental Health and Trading Standards Manager, said his officers’ work to tackle illegal tobacco is just part of overall efforts to reduce smoking.

He added: “Gateshead’s Trading Standards team regularly uses intelligence to target illegal tobacco suppliers. However, we don’t believe that counterfeit tobacco is a growing problem, particularly as HMRC has suggested that the smuggling of counterfeit tobacco products has declined in recent years.

“The bottom line is that all tobacco, whether counterfeit or not, will kill around 480 Gateshead residents this year alone and take up 42,000 GP appointments in the town.

“Around half of all long term smokers can expect to die as a result of their habit.”

Philip Morris against all of us


Dear friends,

The tobacco giant Philip Morris is suing Uruguay for having some of the best anti-smoking laws in the world, and there’s a good chance it could win, unless we step in.

It’s a scary reality: a single company, with a product that kills, could overturn laws that protect our health. This court has already come under fire for not listening to the public in similar lawsuits. Let’s ensure they listen now: if we launch a giant call and work with a world class legal team to carry our voices into the courtroom, the judges won’t be able to turn a blind eye.

Let’s tell the court that this doesn’t just affect Uruguay — if Big Tobacco gets their way, it opens the door for challenges everywhere — at least 4 other countries are in the legal crosshairs, and many more have anti-smoking laws at risk.

We have to move fast — the court is already hearing arguments. Click to protect our public health and our democracies from corporate greed — each of our names will be submitted to the court:

Uruguay requires 80% of the cigarette package to be covered with medical warnings and graphic images. Smoking had reached crisis levels, killing around 7 Uruguayans each day, but since this law was put in place smoking has decreased every year! Now tobacco giant Philip Morris is arguing that the warning labels leave no space for its trademarks.

It’s all part of a global Philip Morris strategy to sue and intimidate countries. The company already slapped an expensive lawsuit on Australia — and if it wins against Uruguay, it could run cases against more than a hundred other countries including France, Norway, New Zealand, and Finland who are all considering new life-saving legislation.

Experts say Philip Morris has a good chance of winning because it’s using a closed door international tribunal that ruled for corporations two-thirds of the time last year. And their rulings are binding, even though many of the judges are private citizens with corporate ties instead of impartial legal experts. It’s up to us to force them to consider the devastating effect their ruling could have on health across the world.

Uruguay has its own legal team, but they’re rightly focused on arguing their individual defence. We can submit a unique legal argument about how this ruling would set a precedent for every country with smoking laws and a similar trade agreement. And we can show the court that public opinion is behind them if they rule in favour of Uruguay and health protection everywhere.

The more of us sign, the harder it is for the court to ignore us. Click below to join the call and forward this email to everyone:

When big corporations launch deadly attacks on our public good, our community has jumped into action — from Monsanto to H&M, we’ve made sure that profits don’t come before people. This is our chance to do it again, for all of us.

With hope,

Emma, Maria Paz, Katie, Mais, Alice, Ricken, Risalat and the whole Avaaz team


Uruguay sued by cigarette makers over anti-smoking laws (BBC)

Philip Morris Sues Uruguay Over Graphic Cigarette Packaging (NPR)

Big Tobacco puts countries on trial as concerns over TTIP deals mount (The Independent)

The Secret Trade Courts (New York Times)

Recent Trends in IIAs and ISDS (UN Conference on Trade and Development)

The arbitration game (The Economist)

Bill sought hiking legal smoking age

MANILA, Philippines–The antismoking group New Vois Association of the Philippines (NVAP) on Sunday urged lawmakers to pass a measure raising the legal age to buy cigarettes from 18 to 21 to cut the prevalence of smoking among Filipino youth.

It is well known, however, that those younger than 18 can obtain cigarettes despite the current law.

But NVAP president Emer Rojas said that passing a law raising the minimum legal sale age (MLSA) would save lives in the long run since the tobacco industry has been luring young people to start the smoking habit to take the place of those who had died or gotten sick from tobacco use.

“Raising the age of those given access to cigarettes will certainly be a good measure to further reduce smoking prevalence, especially among the youth,” Rojas said in a statement on Sunday.

Rojas cited a recent study by the US-based Institute of Medicine that showed that banning the sale of tobacco products to those under 21 would eventually slash the smoking rate by roughly 12 percent and smoking-related deaths by 10 percent.

He pointed out that among the countries that had raised the MLSA for cigarettes were Sri Lanka, Honduras, Kuwait, Cook Islands and several US states, including New York, Illinois, Massachusetts and Hawaii.

He noted that in the Philippines, the MLSA was limited to the use of the word “minors,” which means those under 18 are prohibited access to cigarettes and other tobacco products.

Based on a Social Weather Stations survey in the first quarter last year, Filipinos aged 18 to 24 account for 18 percent of the smoking population. Over 17 million Filipinos currently smoke tobacco.–Jocelyn R. Uy