In what might be one of the least shocking revelations ever, the authors of two recently published papers accuse tobacco companies of further dishonesty (you know, besides decades-long attempts to downplay the addictiveness of cigarettes). They allege the tobacco industry has been scheming to take over an international program aimed at stemming the flow of tobacco smuggling, while doing little to stop its own products from ending up in the black market.
The authors’ main argument is longwinded but relatively simple. Their papers, both published in the BMJ journal Tobacco Control, draw extensively from leaked internal documents, whistleblowers, and earlier investigative work on the part of journalists and governments. The writers come primarily from the Tobacco Control Research Group at the University of Bath in the UK.
Up until the 1990s, the first paper lays out, trans-national tobacco companies, including Phillip Morris International and British American Tobacco, enthusiastically and openly encouraged smuggling. They made a profit regardless, since it was the outside distributors they sold their products to who later put them on the black market. And the more tobacco available, the more addicted customers they would rein in, according to the report. Sometimes, as seen during the collapse of the former Soviet Union, tobacco companies were even found to directly engage in smuggling themselves. Because it was often hard to get tobacco products into these countries legitimately, illegal imports filled the market at first.
Governments started to crack down on these practices, though. In 2003, more than 150 countries signed a global treaty organized by the World Health Organization known as the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. It was then that the industry took a different tack, pledging to do better. In 2012, an accompanying treaty called the Illicit Trade Protocol (ITP) was adopted by nearly 50 countries (curiously, the U.S. wasn’t a signing party to the FCTC, having objected to some policies recommended by it). One of the major aspects of the ITP, which is expected to be fully implemented in 2019, is a system that tries to track and trace the origin of illegally smuggled tobacco products, including those originally produced by legal operations.
Tobacco companies were expressly forbidden to have any say in how this system would be managed, including the method used to track products. But since the early 2000s, tobacco giant Philip Morris International has had its own in-house tracking system, known as Codentify. In more recent years, following the passing of the ITP, Phillip Morris slightly tweaked and licensed its program for free to other tobacco companies.
The paper alleges these companies have then tried to discreetly convince countries—though front groups and paid third parties—to adopt Codentify as their tracking system. Philip Morris, the report further argues, has tried to scrub its links to Codentify entirely. This vanishing act, the authors allege, would allow tobacco companies to claim the use of Codentify by governments is perfectly acceptable under the ITP’s restrictions.
While relying on the industry’s own tools to track tobacco is bad enough, other research cited by the authors has found Codentify is woefully worse at actually tracking smuggled tobacco than other established methods, such as tax stamps, which are used to collect taxes on products like legal drugs and guns via labels that are purchased by companies from the government and then attached to the products themselves.
Codentify, for instance, prints unique codes on each tobacco packet. But these codes have no linked security features, according to the authors, meaning they can be easily circumvented or counterfeited. Tax stamps, on the other hand, can be made to carry physical security features such as holograms, as well as digital codes that allow for easy tracking. These stamps are also usually placed on individual packs of tobacco, making for more precise tracking.
In the second paper, the authors argue that industry-funded research on the illicit tobacco trade is usually shoddier and less transparent than independently funded research. These studies, as one example, undersell the amount of legally made tobacco that ends up being smuggled, instead blaming counterfeit products. Most non-industry research, meanwhile, suggests that around two-thirds of smuggled tobacco products are originally made by the companies themselves, while counterfeits only account for a sliver of the black market.
“This has to be one of the tobacco industry’s greatest scams: not only is it still involved in tobacco smuggling, but big tobacco is positioning itself to control the very system governments around the world have designed to stop it from doing so,” Anna Gilmore, director of the Tobacco Control Research Group, who worked on both papers, said in a statement.
Of course, as the authors point out, the tobacco industry has a long history of trying to manipulate the public and governments about its harmful products, often through supposedly objective studies and “expert” testimony. Given that, the authors’ overall recommendation is perfectly understandable.
“Tobacco industry funded research cannot be trusted. No government should implement a track and trace system linked in any shape or form to the tobacco manufacturers. Doing so could allow the tobacco industry’s involvement in smuggling to continue with impunity,” said Gilmore.
Phillip Morris, reached via email by Gizmodo, shared the following statement in response to the findings:
“Illegal cigarette trade hurts our business and revenues—we have a strong interest to reduce it. We invest significant resources to ensure strong controls in our supply chain and implement ongoing efforts to tackle the diversion of our products, particularly in the most critical markets. We do this through rigorous internal control measures, cooperation with law enforcement and regulators as well as public awareness campaigns. We also support strict regulation and enforcement measures, including tracking and tracing, labeling, record-keeping requirements, and where appropriate, implementation of licensing systems. In this context, we also firmly support the World Health Organization’s Anti-Illicit Trade Protocol, which we want to see implemented globally.”