WHO official sees tough tobacco control

By WILLIAM M. REILLY  |  Aug. 1, 2002 at 8:34 PM
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UNITED NATIONS, Aug. 1 (UPI) -- A senior World Health Organization official said Thursday a U.N. meeting between health and law enforcement officials should reap health and financial benefits from a toughly worded treaty on tobacco control this autumn -- curtailed cigarette smuggling and smoking.

Two days of The International Conference on Illicit Tobacco Trade sponsored by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms concluding at U.N. headquarters saw widespread agreement that will enhance upcoming negotiations on a global tobacco-control treaty, said Dr. Derek Yach, Executive Director of the WHO's Cluster on Non-Communicable Diseases and Mental Health.

"The problem of smuggling is important for both of us," he told reporters. "The first reason we are concerned is that smuggled cigarettes are cheap cigarettes and cheap cigarettes means more consumption among the young and the poor and that increases consumption markedly.

"Smuggled cigarettes evade health warnings, they evade (health) labeling, and very importantly they result in massive loss of revenues to governments," Yach said. "From the crime side they also contribute to money that is floating around a system and that can be used for criminal activity as well as for terrorists activities."

The meeting attended by representatives from 145 countries brought together public health professionals and law enforcement officials who traditionally have different agendas, Yach said, but fostered "a common sense of purpose of tackling tobacco control that will help us all."

Also represented were several international agencies, including Interpol and the World Customs Organization, non-governmental organizations and even some tobacco companies.

From WHO's perspective, international action starts with strong domestic action on smuggling, Yach said.

However he said the problem with that for many countries was that border controls were "extremely weak," although he feels there will now be greater global solidarity to strengthen border controls.

"The immediate impact will be to develop texts that are stronger for the framework convention and possibly a protocol on smuggling," Yach said.

If people who sell tobacco products were licensed and there was strict record keeping, "that in itself is a way of being able to reduce the extent of smuggling into a country," he said.

There was a wide range of suggestions on labeling, including labeling the intended destination of the cigarettes, whether they can be exported, a clear tax on cigarettes "and making very clear the warning in the appropriate country."

Throughout the meeting, the question of the role of the tobacco companies came up with governments feeling "tobacco company complicity in smuggling was a fact and that tobacco companies hampering investigations was an additional serious cause for concern."

WHO was not surprised by the lack of support tobacco companies would give to any aspect of tobacco control, "given our own experiences in having carried out an enquiry of the way in which they subverted all of our policies from tax policy to advertising to denying evidence on environmental tobacco smoke."

Yach called for more and quicker sharing of data among enforcement agencies.

"Some countries, and I believe it will be in the final summary of the report, felt that a percentage of tobacco tax should be used to strengthen law enforcement in countries," he said, pointing out that over the last two years Britain "invested $310 million in better border controls. Their estimate is that this will yield extra revenue of $3.6 billion, which obviously will insure tobacco control."

He said when the tobacco tax increase was announced simultaneously announced was support for tobacco control measures to reach the poorest people in the country, better cessation, as well as measures to tackle smuggling across the country.

"That formula we believe should be followed. Many, many countries believed that this was a very sensible way to go." He believed it would be in the final report.

Arthur Libertucci, assistant director of the AFT and co-chair of the meeting, said that report was expected in about one month in plenty of time for study before the October Geneva framework meeting.

"Two ideas that were extensively discussed during the past two days were, one, international tobacco trade needs to be monitored so that trade is only through legitimate distribution channels and, two, legal revenues must be collected so that governments have the funds to carry out their public health policies," he said, reinforcing Yach's remarks.

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