Tobacco remains a massive threat to global health. Of the 1.1 billion smokers, around half will die as a result of their habit. With much of the world now well aware of smoking’s health risks, Big Tobacco has turned to some sinister methods to keep loyal customers puffing away.
Two new studies from the Tobacco Control Research Group at the University of Bath, UK have revealed that the multinational tobacco industry is not only involved in a “monumental scam” by being complicit in the smuggling of its own products, it's also attempting to control the watchdog set up to prevent this.
"This has to be one of the tobacco industry’s greatest scams," said Professor Anna Gilmore, senior author on both papers published in this month’s edition of the BMJ journal Tobacco Control (here and here), in a statement.
Leaked documents show how the tobacco industry has gone to great lengths to subvert the Illicit Trade Protocol, an international agreement designed to stop the smuggling of tobacco. In clear terms, this is because the tobacco companies benefit from illegally smuggled tobacco, the researchers say. Regardless of where it is eventually sold, tobacco producers make some serious money by selling to wholesalers. This tobacco also remains untaxed, meaning it is cheaper and easier for poorer consumers to buy cigarettes and get hooked.
“Cheap smuggled tobacco is also particularly attractive to those short of cash – children and the least well off – key tobacco industry targets,” the researchers explain in an accompanying BMJ blog post.
The researchers claim that, at best, the industry is taking a lax attitude towards smuggling. At worst, they are fanning the flames.
In the late 1990s, tobacco multinationals were caught orchestrating the smuggling of their own cigarettes in vast quantities. Governments threw the book at them and forced the industry to pay huge fines, along with introducing new policies to curb the activity, such as putting tracking codes on cigarette packets. However, the tobacco industry managed to hoodwink governments into implementing their own track and trace system, "Codentify," allowing the industry to call the shots and remain in control of their watchdog.
“No government should implement a track and trace system linked in any shape or form to the tobacco manufacturers," added Professor Gilmore. "Doing so could allow the tobacco industry’s involvement in smuggling to continue with impunity.”
As part of the scam, the tobacco industry is also pouring money into research on tobacco smuggling, which most of the researchers describe as misleading and biased. Its data routinely overestimate levels of tobacco smuggling by exaggerating the scale of the counterfeit cigarettes, even though most smuggled cigarettes are made (and sold) by the big companies. It also handed reports to the media as a public-relations strategy to portray itself as the victims and defenders of smuggled goods, not the beneficiaries. British American Tobacco even allegedly paid spies to provide data suggesting that its competitor was involved in smuggling.
“If the tobacco industry’s tricks work, they will be left in charge of the very system meant to keep them in check, the system meant to stop them from smuggling their own products, the system meant to safeguard government revenues,” the blog post concludes.
“In short, no-one can trust the tobacco industry chameleons.”
Identifying the means and methods Big Tobacco uses to manipulate both industry and people is vital to the health and well-being of billions.