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MoS, bureaucrats on guest list of tax meet funded by tobacco giants

After courting controversy over its decision to stay implementation of 85 per cent pictorial warnings on packets of tobacco products, the NDA government has once more run afoul of health activists over a tax conference that is being co-organised by a consortium funded by several transnational tobacco companies.

The 12th Annual Asia Pacific Tax Forum, which will be held in Delhi from May 5-7, is being organised by Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER) and International Tax and Investment Centre (ITIC). Among those participating in the event, according to the event website, are MoS (Finance) Jayant Sinha,revenue secretary Shakti Kant Das, Central Board of Direct Taxes chairperson Anita Kapur and Central Board of Excise and Customs chairman Kaushal Srivasatava. The list of sponsors on the ITIC website includes four tobacco companies – Philip Morris International, Imperial Tobacco Ltd, British American Tobacco and JTI Group that was formerly Japanese Tobacco.

While Jayant Sinha was not available for comments, his office said that he will not attend the conference. “I have his schedule with me. I don’t think he is attending it. We never confirmed this,” said an aide. The website though prominently displays his name as one of the confirmed participants in the event.

Health experts and activists are crying foul over the participation of government functionaries in an event partially sponsored by tobacco companies. In a letter to Finance Minister Arun Jaitley on April 8, Bangalore-based Institute of Public Health pointed out that the meeting is violative of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.

“ITIC’s sponsors include all of the leading transnational tobacco companies and its Board of Directors includes representatives from Philip Morris International, British American Tobacco, Imperial Tobacco and JTI Group. In addition, ITIC materials that are publicly available and internal tobacco industry documents made public through US-based litigation settlements show ITIC as part of the tobacco industry has worked for more than two decades to undermine tobacco control policies around the world…,” wrote IPH assistant director Upendra Bhojani in the letter whose copies were sent to Health Minister J P Nadda, Jayant Sinha and other officials named in the agenda for the event.

The WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) states: “In setting and implementing their public health policies with respect to tobacco control, parties shall act to protect these policies from commercial and other vested interests of the tobacco industry in accordance with national law”.

Referring to this section of the FCTC, the letter reminds the government that the FCTC secretariat has already sent out a note verbale to all parties, including India, highlighting the link between ITIC and the tobacco industry.

“ITIC claims to secure its members including tobacco companies a seat at the policy-making table, thwarting tobacco control measures. Any Government of India engagement with them would be allowing conflicting interests to influence its primary duty to protect its own citizens from tobacco’s harm. It also contravenes India’s obligations under the international tobacco control treaty which requires rejection of such unholy alliances”, said Shoba John Programme Director, Health Bridge and Former Chair, Framework Convention Alliance.

In an email response to queries from The Indian Express, ITIC refuted the charge that the tax forum is a violation of FCTC. “The International Tax and Investment Center (ITIC) is pleased to have the participation of a broad range of Indian government officials in the 12th Annual Asia-Pacific Tax Forum for a professional discussion of technical tax issues. It is impossible for this Forum to be even remotely considered a violation of the FCTC, since there are no tobacco-related issues on the agenda, which is purely focused on technical tax matters…” wrote Daniel Witt, president, ITIC, who is based in Washington DC.

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