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Tobacco smuggling to get a whole lot tougher

Clara Hogan,

1 February 2010

Tobacco smuggling could get a lot harsher as an EP conference this evening, a UN Conference in March and a World Health Organisation report all point towards governments being too lax on the issue

European Union officials and international experts fighting against global illicit tobacco sales will meet tonight at a conference to discuss the ongoing concern over the illegal cigarette market just weeks before a vital United Nations meeting in March on the issue.

The UN will meet from 14 – 21 March on a new protocol that could secure a binding international agreement to combat the massive market of illegal tobacco sales. It will be the fourth meeting of the International Negotiating Body on the supplementary protocol to the already-in-place Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which passed in 2005 and was the first treaty negotiated under the auspices of the World Health Organization.

Belgian Green MEP Bart Staes, who is hosting tonight’s conference in Brussels to push more EU leadership on the issue, said it is necessary to have strong action rather than simply more political talk.

“It’s essential that the EU takes the lead in the final negotiations and helps to win international support for a strong Protocol to combat the illicit tobacco trade,” he said in a statement. “Anything less risks resembling the disappointing outcome of the UN Climate summit in Copenhagen – plenty promising words, but no binding agreement.”

Proponents of the supplement argue illicit tobacco creation and smuggling undermine government taxes and attempts to improve public health. Illegal cigarette trade accounts for nearly 12% of all cigarette consumption worldwide, according to a report released by the International Union of Tuberculosis and Lung Disease in 2008. This takes away roughly 35 billion euro from governments in tax revenues each year.

The report also states smoking will cause more than 8 million deaths a year by 2030, of which more than 80% will occur in low and middle income countries, where tobacco use has been rising dramatically and illicit trade is the highest.

And because raising taxes, and therefore price, of cigarettes has been shown to decrease tobacco use in countries, officials say illegal sales undermine government efforts to do so.

The proposed protocol would put several actions into effect, one of which would require parties to set up international tracing and tracking systems with one focal point to enhance the ability of effectively tracing illegal sales. Another part of the protocol would require specified parties participating in tobacco trade to hold a valid license.

In a more 21st century approach, states under the protocol would need to restrict or ban Internet sales of tobacco, which contributes to a large part of global illicit cigarette trade.

People also can find making or smuggling tobacco attractive because there are less harsh penalties compared to those who engage in trading harder drugs. The protocol would include provisions that treat illegal cigarette activity as more of a serious crime.

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