May 31 is World No Tobacco Day, an important annual event when we pause to reflect on how to move the world away from tobacco use and toward improved public health.
Tobacco is one of the leading risk factors for non-communicable diseases, including cancer – 32% of all cancer deaths in the United States, including a staggering 87% of lung cancer deaths, are attributable to tobacco use. Tobacco use is also one of the most preventable causes of cancer deaths.
This year’s World No Tobacco Day theme is illicit trade – tobacco products produced, exported, imported, purchased, sold, or possessed illegally. While illicit trade in tobacco products is undoubtedly troubling from a number of perspectives, including lost tax revenue for governments, increased revenue to tobacco companies, and links to organized crime and possibly terrorism, it’s important to look at the whole picture. The tobacco industry consistently tries to claim that strong tobacco control policies increase illicit trade. But, in fact, the single best way to fight the illicit trade in tobacco products is to redouble efforts to use what we already know works to drive down the use of all cigarettes, legal and illegal. Such practices include:
- increasing tobacco excise taxes,
- requiring graphic warning labels on tobacco packaging,
- making laws to ban tobacco marketing and
- demanding smoke-free public and work places and anywhere where children might be present.
It’s also important to make very clear some fundamental truths about illicit trade. [more]
- First, almost all illicit cigarettes start as legal ones: by the industry’s own admissions, the proportion is about 95%. There’s overwhelming evidence that the tobacco industry itself is regularly involved in some way in the illegal trade of their products. Furthermore, the tobacco industry often claims that illicit cigarettes are more unhealthy, but this is a ridiculous notion considering that these manufacturers make almost all cigarettes . More to the point, we know without question that all cigarettes – legal or otherwise – will eventually kill you if used “as prescribed” by the manufacturer.
- Second, although many governments believe it’s convenient and useful to work with the tobacco industry on illicit trade, governments should be very wary because the tobacco industry will do what’s best for the tobacco industry, not necessarily what’s best for public health. For example, certain companies have developed so-called “track and trace” systems to ensure the legal supply chain of tobacco products, but it’s best to keep the industry at arm’s length and implement an independent program, such as the one that Kenya is now using to fight the illicit cigarette trade successfully. In other words, government should set up their own systems to fight illicit trade and shouldn’t rely on the companies’ often-deceptive practices. In the European Union, a new study involving American Cancer Society research staff shows that since signing agreements with several major tobacco companies about illicit trade, financial losses have not been recovered nearly as well as expected. Additionally, these agreements have effectively served to secure the tobacco industry’s political presence in Europe, thereby threatening progress in helping people quit tobacco or avoid it in the first place.
The existence of illicit trade should never distract us from the critical job of implementing strong tobacco control policies and saving lives. Moreover, we’ve seen that it’s possible for governments to create effective tobacco control policies and save lives, even in the presence of illicit trade.
We invite you to visit our website, tobaccoatlas.org, to learn more not only about the illicit trade in tobacco products, but more importantly about the steps that must be taken to fight the tobacco epidemic and create a tobacco-free world with less cancer and other preventable diseases.
Drope is vice president of the American Cancer Society’s Economic & Health Policy Research Program.