About 10 percent of the global cigarette market is estimated to go through illicit trade
A global pact to battle the illegal tobacco trade kicks in this week, with the World Health Organisation hailing it as "game-changing" in eliminating widespread health-hazardous and criminal activity.
The treaty, which aims to create an international tracking and tracing system to halt the smuggling and counterfeiting of tobacco products, will take effect on Tuesday.
When the so-called Protocol to Eliminate Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products achieved the 40 ratifications needed for it to take effect last June, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus tweeted that it was a "historic day" and that the world had taken "a vital step towards a tobacco-free world".
And when the pact was first announced in November 2012, Tedros's predecessor Margaret Chan described it as "a game-changing treaty".
"This is how we hem in the enemy," she said at the time, addressing a meeting in Seoul of WHO's Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), describing the protocol as a major step towards "eliminating a very sophisticated criminal activity".
About 10 percent of the global cigarette market is estimated to go through illicit trade, according to Vera Luiza da Costa e Silva, who heads the FCTC secretariat.
At the same time, one-third of tobacco product exports are eventually traded illegally, she said, lamenting the impact this is having on global efforts to reduce tobacco consumption.
'Criminal groups, terrorism'
"Illicitly traded tobacco products are more affordable, more accessible, especially to young people and to low social economic groups, and they of course increase consumption," she told AFP.
"And they are unregulated and they don't display health warnings," she said, adding that such trade is also closely associated with "international criminal groups and terrorism".
Due to the shadiness implicit in the illicit trade, the scope of the problem is unclear.
According to Euromonitor International however, overall cigarette retail values in 2016 were worth $683.4 billion, so the annual value of illicit cigarette sales alone could conceivably be valued at around a tenth of that.
Da Costa e Silva stressed that illicit tobacco trade is not only detrimental to public health.
It is estimated to cheat governments globally out of around $31 billion in tax revenues that they otherwise would have generated from legal tobacco sales each year.
"If you consider this in the global situation where there are limited resources for a number of issues this makes a huge difference," she said.
A major aim of the new treaty is to prevent the illegal trade in the first place.
Agents, suppliers and tobacco manufacturers will all have to be licensed. Manufacturers will have to carry out checks on customers to ensure they are genuine or if they have associations with criminal organisations.
Under the pact, countries will also be obliged to establish "tracking and tracing" systems, at the national, regional and international levels, within five years.
One important aspect of both the protocol and its parent treaty, the FCTC, is the effort to block tobacco companies from influencing the process.
Tobacco industry 'never a partner'
"The industry is never a partner. It should never have a seat around the table," Da Costa e Silva said.
She expressed concern that tobacco companies would nonetheless try to infiltrate and influence the next meeting of the FCTC members, set to be held in Geneva the first week of October, as well as the first meeting of the members of the new protocol, scheduled a week later.
Big Tobacco, she said, "has no limits in trying to lobby governments, scientists... (and) to make mechanisms to take over the show," with the aim of increasing "their profits and to be unregulated and to dilute regulations".
Attempts to keep the tobacco industry at bay could meanwhile result in excluding potentially valuable partners from the process.
Interpol, which could have been expected to play a role in the international cooperation and law-enforcement aspects of the treaty, may for instance not have a seat at the table due to its tobacco ties.
Da Costa e Silva said the organisation would need to show its policies have changed and that it is no longer receiving funding from tobacco companies if it wants to participate.
She meanwhile stressed that a wide variety of sectors, ranging from health authorities to customs and tax administrators, would be involved in the effort to crack down on the criminal networks fuelling the illicit trade.
"Illicit trade is a cross-border issue. It is not something that the government can solve in isolation," she said.
"Everyone needs to come together to establish mechanisms to address this."