For all the European Union’s rhetorical commitments to public health, from “tackling pollution and climate change” to placing stricter limits on the use of industrial fertilizers and pesticides, there is one area where public health experts largely agree EU policy has fallen flat: policing the tobacco industry. Indeed, while EU member states such as Spain have garnered headlines by banning smoking in public places to curb the spread of COVID-19, it is far too often the tobacco companies shaping the rules governing their products in ways that protect their interests – and their sales.
As the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project explored in an in-depth exposé earlier this year, the European Union has rejected both the guidance of the World Health Organisation (WHO) and public health advocates to put the fate of its critical tobacco traceability systems in the hands of the very industry those systems are meant to monitor.
Codentify an industry ‘Trojan horse’?
Despite the black-market trade in tobacco totalling €10 billion a year, and tobacco majors including Philip Morris International (PMI) and British American Tobacco (BAT) paying well over a billion Euros to the EU over the past two decades to settle allegations of complicity in smuggling, EU member states – with the Commission’s blessing – have been working with companies such as France’s Atos and Worldline and London-based Dentsu Aegis to implement tobacco “track and trace” systems based on Codentify to ferret out illicit tobacco. The Codentify tracking system, developed by PMI itself as a way of maintaining industry influence over tobacco traceability schemes, is perceived by the tobacco control movement as being hopelessly compromised.
Unsurprisingly, the European experience with tobacco traceability has been a disheartening one for public health experts concerned about the black market’s ability to undermine tobacco control measures designed to reduce smoking. As those measures have taken shape under the auspices of the WHO and its Framework Convention for Tobacco Control (FCTC), some governments with fewer resources and institutions more vulnerable to outside interference have nonetheless shown more backbone than the EU in the face of pressure from tobacco companies such as PMI and BAT.
Uruguay’s historic precedent
The most famous example is of course the small South American country of Uruguay, which fought back against a major PMI lawsuit over its WHO-backed plain packaging regulations. When PMI first pursued legal action, the tobacco control community feared the industry could set a precedent by strong-arming countries whose economies are dwarfed by the tobacco companies’ global revenues.
By winning its legal battle in 2016, however, Uruguay set a precedent that opened the door for other small markets to implement stronger tobacco legislation of their own. Many of those countries are in sub-Saharan Africa, a region that the tobacco industry has been targeting since the 1990s to make up for declining sales in its traditional European and American strongholds.
Given how much of their long-term viability is vested in driving up smoking rates across Africa, companies such as BAT have been willing to go to extreme measures to prevent policymakers from implementing tobacco control measures. Among them: threats of legal action similar to PMI’s case against Uruguay, but also alleged bribery and even the exploitation of conflict zones in countries such as Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to produce or sell tobacco without government oversight.
Togo’s successes earn WHO recognition
While the PMI-Uruguay was still ongoing, for example, the West African country of Togo – with a population of just under 7 million and a GDP of $4.3 billion USD at the time – received an infamous missive from PMI in 2012 that claimed plain packaging measures would violate the country’s constitution, forcing the country to compensate the tobacco majors for their losses.
In 2013, a PMI memo to Togo’s minister of commerce reportedly warned: “as a country whose economy heavily relies on exports, Togo can ill afford to anger its international partners by introducing plain packaging.” Nevertheless, Togo and a number of other African governments have persisted in implementing tobacco regulations recommended by the WHO.
After ratifying the FCTC in 2005 and putting tobacco control measures into law in 2010, the Togolese tax authorities have just this month introduced a traceability system which is fully independent from the tobacco industry and fulfills the country’s obligations under the FCTC protocols on combatting the illicit tobacco trade.
These efforts have been praised by the international public health communitry, with the head of the Togolese health ministry’s antitobacco programme, Vinyo Kumako, receiving plaudits from the WHO last month. Elsewhere in the region, Senegal also passed an FCTC-compliant tobacco control law in 2014, prohibiting smoking in public places, the sale of tobacco in proximity to schools, ‘per unit’ tobacco sales, and tobacco advertising.
Collective action at a regional level
For all these milestones, the fact remains that public institutions in West Africa lack the resources available to counterparts in other parts of the world, leaving them more exposed to tobacco industry influence and pressure.
One potential solution is for the 15 member countries of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to pool their efforts and define a common approach to tobacco control, both at a governmental level and amongst civil society groups. Amongst its other advantages, this type of collective action would help these countries prevent the tobacco industry from exploiting disparities between ECOWAS countries to stymie the implementation of public health policies outlined by the FCTC.
As the European Union has shown, transnational collective action is not in and of itself a guarantee of success. A key difference between the EU and ECOWAS, however, is that tobacco consumption in Europe is already on a slow but steady path towards decline, whereas African markets are still seen by the sector as a priority growth market. By establishing and maintaining their independence from tobacco industry influence now, ECOWAS and other African governments can avoid the catastrophic public health costs tobacco use will ultimately saddle them with.