¿Por qué nosotros no? Acción Ciudadana por la Salud y el cambio de la Ley Española de Tabaco

A great goal scored for health and common sense

02/12/2015 Joseba ZABALA GALÁN "EL MUNDO"

Goal into the top corner! – that’s the first thing I thought after reading the news that Philip Morris International (PMI) and Altadis had signed an agreement with the Spanish ‘Guardia Civil’ Police to fight against tobacco smuggling. How painful it is to see a tobacco company pay our police corp for underwater cameras, night-vision systems, scanners, etc. However, as the cheers die down from the fans, what we find is that the ball is in our own net, because we have allowed the tobacco industry to appear to be the principal custodians of legality and moral behaviour. It actually turns out to be a masterful goal of corporate image that I shall try to replay in slow-motion so that the fans in the stalls who may not have an eye for this type of game can judge for themselves in the light of the facts.

Since 2004, the world’s four biggest tobacco companies have paid hundreds of millions of dollars in fines to resolve their smuggling cases in Europe and Canada. In 2000, the European Commission and EU member states took legal action accusing them of "having ...

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... a continuous global system for cigarette smuggling, income from narcotics laundering, obstruction of government oversight, bribes to foreign public officials, illegal business with terrorist groups and states that support terrorism." As a result of these legal actions, PMI and Japan Tobacco International closed their cases in 2004 and 2007 respectively through the payment of more than 1.6 million dollars to the European Commission and to its member states in recognition of fiscal losses suffered through their illegal acts. PMI settled the complaint against them through a legal trade agreement avoiding the necessity to plead guilty.

The 200 PMI lobbyists in Brussels must have done a really good job. After three years of confidential meetings, they came to an agreement with the European Commission signed in 2004, and that after twelve years will expire in 2016. Last month, the European Ombudsman from Ireland, Emily O’Reilly, denounced the lack of transparency in the meetings that the Commission held the year before with the tobacco industry, under the presidency of Durao Barroso and she urged the new EU executive to publish this information.

They were trying, on one hand, to impede Philip Morris from being involved in illicit trade of their own cigarettes and to punish the company each time there was a large seizure of its cigarettes. On the other hand, they were trying to find a way for the EU member states to recover lost tax revenues. It turns out that those tax agents depend on the tobacco company itself to determine if the confiscated cigarettes are originals (subject to payment) or false (not subject to payment). The agreement makes it so that this determination is analyzed by the actual tobacco company, so the result is predictable: payments for seized cigarettes have been risible. Only 0.5% of the 3.8 million confiscated cigarettes in the EU in 2012 were classified as “original brands”. This implies that governments rarely recover any of their lost revenue.

My soccer player friends would ask: “How do PMI and other big tobacco companies decide if the confiscations are authentic or if they are fake?” The manufacturers base their analysis on a system called Codentify, which was developed internally by Philip Morris and which can be used for free by other tobacco companies (Japan Tobacco International, British American Tobacco, Imperial Tobacco). Codentify uses an algorithm to create a scannable code of twelve numbers which is applied to each pack of cigarettes allowing it to be traced along the supply chain.

This is the game changer. Looking now at how they scored this goal, you have probably already realised that the agreement with PMI is nothing but a way to use the ‘Guardia Civil’ police to develop and promote PMI’s system of Codentify. Furthermore, this system does not meet the requirements of the Protocol for the Elimination of Commercial Trade of Tobacco Products that the WHO signed last year in Spain, which establishes in Article 8.2 that the system used to follow and register products should be controlled independently by the government and not in conjunction with the tobacco industry.

This protocol is not the only set of rules that the players must abide by. Article 5.3 of the WHO Framework Convention of Tobacco Control demands that member states be responsible and transparent in all their dealings with the industry. It’s one thing to ask for facts from a tobacco manufacturer, and a very different thing to be funded by them. Let’s be clear: how is it possible that a tobacco company can finance an entity that is supposed to be fighting against smuggling, when it has emerged that the same industry could be implicated in the smuggling itself? The financing of these policing systems should come from the taxes on tobacco rather than direct financing from the tobacco makers and traders themselves. It is not admissible in any way that the referee's whistle has been purchased by one of the teams.

Public health has watched the game and declared the goal invalid, and called for the red card. Both at national government level and at EU level in Brussels, in the fight against the illicit trade of tobacco Europe has to look for a more effective solution than the current agreement with PMI.

The final whistle is still a long way off. After halftime there will be a second part of the game which will include the plain packaging of tobacco. It will be claimed that plain packaging will encourage yet more smuggling, but this is far from the truth. What plain packaging will achieve is that fewer young people will take up smoking.

So what are we waiting for here in Spain? The whole world of public health is moving in this direction. Australians, British, French, Irish and Norwegians have already taken this step towards the plain packaging revolution. Why the Spanish not?.

This game is about people’s health, and its one we need to win!

Joseba Zabala Galan, MD, Public Health

*Joseba Zabala Galan is a Public Health Doctor and the coordinator for the grassroots initiative XQNS , which received an award from Queen Sofia of Spain.

Traslation by Carly Caminiti and Michael Chalcraft



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