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WHO tobacco campaign fuels distrust, illicit trade

A new report says the World Health Organization's anti-tobacco effort has adopted a “quit or die” approach to stopping smoking, and that its efforts to reduce tobacco consumption have instead fostered a growing black market in tobacco products.

The Sept. 14 report, from the Reason Foundation’s Julian Morris, said the WHO’s 2004 Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), an international treaty organization affiliated with the WHO, was designed “to protect present and future generations from the devastating health, social, environmental and economic consequences of tobacco consumption and exposure to tobacco smoke.”

But in pursuit of that goal, the WHO has become hostile to alternative approaches to reducing smoking, such as vaping or electronic cigarettes, suggesting such products be “heavily regulated.”

Morris says the treaty organization is also producing more of its work in secret and shunning participation from groups that have had any contact with tobacco companies. 

Transparency is also a problem.

Morris said that at the FCTC’s most recent meetings in Seoul, South Korea in 2012, and Moscow, Russia in 2014, “all journalists were thrown out of the public gallery and the meetings were held in secret.”

At the Seoul meeting, the FCTC said journalists were removed from the meetings because some delegates alleged there was a "large presence of the tobacco industry in the public gallery.”

Morris said the FCTC has “essentially no participation by representatives of many affected groups, including users of tobacco and vape products, vendors and farmers.”

Morris also said the FCTC has excluded Interpol from its discussion, "despite its expertise in combating illicit trade in tobacco, a key topic covered by the Convention.” 

The FCTC has said Interpol has received funding from tobacco companies as part of its effort to combat smuggling, citing a March 2013 article in the journal Tobacco Control that said the tobacco industries' deal with Interpol "to promote its own tracking and tracing system" for illegal tobacco products "raises obvious concerns, not least because of overwhelming evidence of the tobacco industry's complicity in global cigarette smuggling on both a historical and current basis."

The illicit tobacco trade has become an issue in countries like Australia that have adopted the FCTC's goal of heavily taxing cigarettes to reduce consumption.

The FCTC and World Health Organization both back high taxes as a tool for reducing tobacco consumption, advocating a 70-percent rate worldwide.

By 2020, the average price of a pack of cigarettes in Australia will reach $45, with 69 percent of the price going to taxes.

In response, more and more Australian smokers are turning to vendors who sell illegally imported cigarettes, many of whom have ties to organized crime.

Tobacco smuggling is also being linked to terrorism funding.

A March study by Christian Leuprecht of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute in Canada said that "police seizures that involve contraband tobacco and cigarettes regularly pick up high-powered weapons, hard drugs, stolen vehicles and other merchandise, and millions in cash.”

In his study, Leuprecht said Mokhtar Bemokhtar, a former "military commander of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb” who formed his own splinter group called the “Masked Brigade,” was dubbed "Mr. Marlboro” by the CIA "for his frequent use of cigarette smuggling into Europe to fund his terrorist attacks.”

The FCTC's hard line on those connected to tobacco companies, as well as its increasingly secretive proceedings, has some U.S. critics wondering why the U.S. government continues to fund the group's parent organization, the WHO.

David Williams, president of the Taxpayers Protection Alliance, told AMI Newswire his group is working to establish an international network of taxpayer groups to hold the WHO and FCTC accountable for their actions.

"The WHO has lost its focus," Williams said. "They are going after tobacco in a big way while failing on the bigger priorities like Ebola and Zika."

Williams said the WHO and the FCTC both need "more transparency, accountability and respect for press freedom" in how they pursue their initiatives.

Williams also said the FCTC's approach encourages lawlessness and smuggling, pointing to the July 2014 death of Eric Garner after he was put in a chokehold by New York City police.

Police suspected Garner of selling "loosies," individual cigarettes from untaxed packs of cigarettes. 

"The WHO is a taxpayer-funded organization," Williams said. "We're concerned with how they are spending our money and conducting themselves in the process."

The WHO billed the United States for more than $56 million in biennial dues in August.

"At what point does the U.S. stop funding all this?" Williams said.

For its part, the FCTC has said among its core strategic priorities are "campaigning to change society" and its "belie[f] in transparency and accountability."

Another of those core beliefs is that there exists a "fundamental and irreconcilable conflict between the tobacco industry's interests and public health policy interests."

In his Reason Foundation report, Morris said that if the FCTC wants to show that it truly embraces such beliefs, it would "at the very least" allow "journalists to attend all sessions ... and technical committees.

"Better yet," Morris said, "the FCTC might livestream all its proceedings over the web."

AMI Newswire requested comment beginning last Friday from the WHO's Geneva and Washington, D.C.-based public affairs offices, but received no response to those inquiries as of late Monday afternoon -- other than the DC office referring us back to Geneva.