Sealing the cracks

The finalisation of a new protocol to curb illicit trade in tobacco products under the World Health Organisation’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC) promises to address a major systemic weakness. Although the state-parties to the Convention have been working to stop disease and death resulting from tobacco use for seven years, their efforts are stymied by a well-oiled system of unlawful trade in cigarettes and other tobacco products. It is wholly welcome, therefore, that more than 140 members of the FCTC have agreed on the Protocol to Eliminate Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products. The new pact seeks to clearly define illegal trade, and counteract it using licensing, information sharing and legal cooperation among countries. ‘Illicit trade’ is defined as any practice or conduct prohibited by law and which relates to production, shipment, receipt, possession, distribution, sale or purchase including any practice or conduct intended to facilitate such activity. In the past, smuggling of well-known cigarette brands dominated illegal activity. Recent trends show undeclared manufacture by big tobacco companies for illegal sale in countries with weak law enforcement, and production of new cigarette brands in Free Economic Zones. These cheap ‘illicit whites’ are sold in distant markets violating local laws. Africa is an attractive market for such cigarettes. Estimates of sales in 84 countries made in recent years indicate that more than a tenth of the consumption appears to be illicit — a staggering annual volume of more than 650 billion cigarette sticks.

These are cracks in the campaign that a new protocol could seal effectively. FCTC members have since 2008, identified the features of a new agreement that would include licensing of all business segments, introduction of tracking and tracing systems, control of Free Economic Zones that benefit from concessions, and tracing of payments. As a party to the Convention, India should quickly ratify the protocol when it opens for signature in January. But more importantly, it should address the challenge at home, of shifting a large number of farmers away from tobacco cultivation to remunerative alternatives. That is going to be extremely difficult, unless the task is viewed as a mission. The lobbyist argument is that India is the second largest exporter of unmanufactured tobacco, worth about a billion dollars a year. Yet, it is also true that the national health burden linked to tobacco use is nearly 42 per cent cancer deaths in men and 18 per cent in women, besides high cancer incidence and morbidity. As an important member, India must support the new protocol and effective implementation of the Convention.

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