Tobacco rule changes will boost crime, industry warns

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European Commission plans to clamp down on the tobacco industry, set to be published later this year, will boost criminal activity, according to an industry-funded report out today (3 April).

The report, titled 'Transcrime', examines plans under consideration in Brussels to force plain packaging on cigarette packs, to push health-related costs onto the tobacco companies and to ban displays of cigarettes from vending outlets.

It was conducted by Ernesto Savona, a professor of criminology from Milan who has previously worked with the European Commission on crime impact assessments. It was also funded by tobacco major Philip Morris.

The report claims that banning branded packets could leave smokers more likely to reach out for counterfeits, and also risks creating an environment in which consumers lose the ability to differentiate between real and illicit products.

“The risk of the counterfeiting of tobacco products is likely to increase [as a result of plain packaging rules] unless specific measures are introduced to prevent it,” according to the report.

Benefits of plain packaging wiped out by smuggling, counterfeit?

Since plain packaged cigarettes would be easier to counterfeit, the report claims that a boom in such activity and smuggling would cancel out any related decrease in smoking.

Forcing tobacco companies to pay for health costs on the “polluter pays” principle would boost the benefits of counterfeiting, creating a larger black market that will be harder for police to detect, the report goes on.

The Commission's lack of assessment of the criminal effects of its proposals is “surprising”, the report continues. Speaking to EURACTIV, Savona said that the EU executive needed to do more research on the specific criminal impact of its proposals across different EU member states. “Some are more vulnerable to increased mafia behaviour,” he said.

Report unlikely to change Commission's mind

The EU executive is currently finalising its impact assessment report, and is keeping its preferred options for new tobacco rules closely guarded.

A spokeswoman for Health Commissioner John Dalli confirmed that “plain packaging is still an option”, adding that “health warnings on the packages are expected to be bigger than they are now”.

She said that the industry has consistently claimed that plain packaging would lead to more illicit trade, “but was unable to support their claims with compelling evidence.”

“We are not familiar with the latest Transcrime study, which is – as far as we know – a study sponsored by the industry. Obviously, we will look at it when it becomes available. It is however not expected that our assessment would change fundamentally,” she added.

“Generally speaking factors such as location of the country/transport routes, effectiveness of the law enforcement authorities, corruption are likely to play a decisive role on the level of illicit trade observed in a member state,” said a spokeswoman for Health Commissioner John Dalli.

“Also it is possible to take effective measures against illicit trade, such as tracking and tracing systems,” the spokeswoman concluded.

“Due to the pictoral warnings, plain packaging will in fact provide an easy mechanism to identify illicit cigarettes and recent work from Cancer Research UK shows that there is strong evidence supporting that plain packaging will contribute to making smoking less attractive,” according to Monika Kosinska, the secretary-general of the European Public Health Alliance (EPHA), an NGO.

“It is hardly surprising that the release of this report coincides with strong lobbying against plain packaging - the same Cancer Research UK study showed projections for tobacco sales to halve if it goes through. This is a desperate attempt to muddy the water with claims that are misleading at best and downright inaccurate at worst,” added Kosinska.

“This report is another reminder that the tobacco industry can persuade some prestigious academics with arguments it knows to be spurious in its efforts to prevent regulation, and should not be believed. Indeed, an industry that has been so heavily involved in cigarette smuggling has no credibility in these debates,” according to the director of NGO the Smoke-Free Partnership, Florence Berteletti Kemp.

The first tobacco control legislation in the EU was introduced in the 1980s. Since then, EU legislation and policy has been further developed in the areas of product regulation, advertising and protecting people from second-hand smoke, as well as prevention.

Health Commissioner John Dalli is set to widen the scope of cigarette-trading rules to cover potentially harmful electronic cigarettes, flavourings and marketing strategies – potentially including plain packaging – as part of a revision of the 2001 Tobacco Products Directive.

Australia is set to become the first country to introduce plain packaging in December 2012; its actions met with fierce resistance from the tobacco industry, which argued that the proposals were indicative of a 'nanny state', and would result in an increase in illicit trade and the activity of crime syndicates.

  • 4th quarter 2012: Commission set to publish proposals revising the 2001 Tobacco Products Directive.
  • Smoke-Free PartnershipWebsite
  • European Public Health AllianceWebsite

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