Philip Morris agreement with Spanish police: undermining the FCTC?

On 29 October, Philip Morris Spain signed an agreement with the Spanish police to fund equipment including underwater cameras, night vision systems, and scanners for verifying authentication and tracking of tobacco products. The agreement also includes support during inspections and seizures of counterfeit products to assess possible illegal activities regarding the entire production and distribution chain, as well as research and studies about illicit tobacco.

The agreement takes place against the backdrop of a hotly contested battle for the European Commission’s approach to track and trace technology to meet the requirements of the revised European Tobacco Products Directive (TPD). Unlike the WHO protocol to Eliminate Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products (which the EU has signed, but not ratified), the TPD doesn’t exclude the tobacco industry from a central role in fighting illicit tobacco. The track and trace system supported by the TPD also doesn’t require secured markings on tobacco packages.

The tobacco industry is arguing for its own technology Codentify – a system developed by Philip Morris and licenced at no cost to BAT, Imperial Tobacco Group and Japan Tobacco International – against a Swiss company SICPA. Officials at the European Anti-Fraud Office, OLAF, have already thrown support behind Codentify and expressed concern that the SICPA technology may be incompatible with working agreements currently in place with the tobacco industry to combat smuggling.

OLAF’s support ignores significant concerns about the adequacy of Codentify, particularly its use of relatively unsecured equipment and potential for codes to be used more than once. Use of Codentify also opens up the possibility that investigations and inquiries could be transparent to the tobacco industry, and therefore potentially beneficial in shaping its reponse.

OLAF has noted that efforts to disrupt illicit tobacco rely on the input of the industry, a situation created by anti-smuggling agreements between tobacco companies, the EC and EU member states. The agreements were enacted with companies from 2004, following a case in the 1990s in which cigarettes were legally exported from the US and later appeared on the black markets of countries such as Italy, Spain and other European countries. The anti-smuggling agreements, due to expire in 2016, require tobacco companies to control their supply chain and set penalty payments for cigarette seizures. The agreements have generally been ineffective due to a range of loopholes, particularly because customs officials rely on industry to determine counterfeit cigarettes.

In the mid 1990s, it was estimated that 16% of the Spanish cigarette market was illegal. This was reduced to 2% in 2001, following a focused operation which included inter-jurisdictional cooperation, coordinated customs activity and participation in the EU investigation of cigarette smuggling by transnational tobacco companies. The main source of illegal cigarettes had been products from transnational tobacco companies supplying Spain via seaports. A 2014 OLAF report suggests that the illicit tobacco market in Spain has re-emerged and is fuelled by contraband originating in Gibraltar.

There is a lack of technical expertise in tracking and tracing in many European countries, creating a significant opportunity for the industry to step in and fill the gap. In addition, a comprehensive two year strategy and action plan to tackle illicit tobacco published by the EU in June 2013 – which aims to target supply and demand in illicit products, decrease smuggling incentives (primarily through tax harmonisation), improve security of the supply chain through tracing and tracking, and strengthen and coordinate enforcement – has no new budget allocation.

Philip Morris is likely to benefit from the agreement with the Spanish police in several ways. Apart from the obvious public image benefit of being seen to support strong law enforcement, providing apparently welcome assistance to police agencies in individual countries in Europe helps to cement the industry’s positioning as an essential partner in the fight against smuggling. Supplying research and ‘academic’ advice provides an opportunity for PMI to shape law enforcement expertise based on research favourable to its position.

In 2011, Philip Morris gave a donation of $23 million to Interpol; as with that donation, this agreement with the Spanish police generates goodwill within law enforcement and makes it appear that Philip Morris is part of the solution rather than a root cause of the problem.

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