Combatting illicit trade

The Protocol [to Eliminate Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products] offers the world a unique legal instrument to counter and eventually eliminate a sophisticated criminal activity. Fully implemented, it will replenish government revenues and allow more spending on health.

Dr Margaret Chan, WHO Director-General

The illicit tobacco market may account for as much as one in every 10 cigarettes consumed globally, according to studies, and the problem is particularly acute in Europe.
The illicit cigarette market in the WHO European Region comprises between 6% and 10% of the total market, and Europe has the highest number of seized cigarettes in the world, some years accounting for as much as 95% of all cigarettes seized globally.

Illicit trade poses a serious threat to public health because it increases access to tobacco products – often at cheaper prices – thus fuelling the tobacco epidemic and undermining tobacco control policies. It also causes substantial losses in tax and customs revenue for governments, and it contributes to the funding of international criminal activities. 

A protocol to address the problem

The issues linked to the illicit trade of tobacco products were seen as so serious that the Parties to the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC) decided that a protocol – a new international treaty – was needed to specifically address the illicit tobacco trade. The Protocol to Eliminate Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products, adopted in November 2012, is based on Article 15 of the WHO FCTC, which refers to the threats posed by illicit trade and measures countries must take to prevent it. The Protocol is open for ratification and accession by Parties to the WHO FCTC. As of the end of 2015, 13 countries globally had ratified the Protocol.

The Protocol aims to make the supply chain of tobacco products secure through a series of measures by governments, such as: 

  • the establishment of a global tracking and tracing regime within five years of entry into force of the Protocol; 
  • licensing; 
  • record keeping requirements; and 
  • regulation of Internet-sales, duty-free sales and international transit.

The Protocol also includes obligations aimed at boosting international cooperation, with measures on information sharing, technical and law enforcement cooperation, mutual legal and administrative assistance, and extradition.

Europe stands to gain most by eliminating illicit trade

As the region with the highest smoking prevalence, the highest proportion of deaths attributed to tobacco, the highest cigarette tax levels and the highest number of seized cigarettes in the world, the impact of eliminating illicit trade in Europe would be significant. The availability of cheap illicit cigarettes increases consumption and, thus, tobacco related deaths. Eliminating or reducing this illicit trade would reduce consumption by increasing price, thereby reducing premature deaths. Overall, European cigarette consumption would fall by an estimated 1.9% were illicit trade eliminated, saving more than 38,000 lives per year. 

Europe also stands to gain financially by eliminating illicit trade. Even taking into account a simultaneous fall in consumption due to increased prices, Europe would gain an estimated 9 to 11 billion Euro in revenue by shutting down the illicit tobacco market. 

For these reasons, it is critical to address the issue of illicit trade in the WHO European Region and is, therefore, of highest priority that all governments ratify the Protocol to Eliminate the Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products as an important means to reduce tobacco-related mortality and morbidity, as well as increase revenue.