European Union tobacco traceability system still not in line with WHO Protocol

According to a new study by the Smoke Free Partnership (SFP), there are still important gaps in the European Commission’s efforts to protect public health and fully comply with international law. In particular, the EU’s system for tracking and tracing tobacco remains under the influence of the tobacco industry, meaning that it falls far short of the system envisioned by the World Health Organisation (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control and its associated Protocol to Eliminate Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products.

At a time when public health is an increasingly significant issue within the EU—so much so that the idea of a European agency to harmonise the bloc’s different policies is being floated, some associations are sounding the alarm. According to the Smoke Free Partnership (SFP), the leading health NGO in Brussels on anti-smoking issues which is made up of 54 anti-smoking associations, the European Commission has opted for a traceability system that is technically flawed and apparently does not comply with international law.

A traceability system highly dependent on the tobacco industry

These are the main conclusions of the new study published on Monday 14 February 2022 by the Smoke Free Partnership. According to the NGO, 8 out of a total of 10 data storage providers selected by the European Commission have links to the tobacco industry. Moreover, principal player Dentsu, responsible for the central database, has acquired Blue Infinity, one of the companies that implemented the Codentify system which was developed and patented by Philip Morris International (PMI).

Following the initiative of other Brussels-based public health NGOs, the Smoke Free Partnership shows with this new study that the EU’s tobacco traceability system– whose implementation began in 2019 – does not comply with the World Health Organisation’s Protocol commitment “to eliminate illicit trade in tobacco products”. The international WHO treaty, which came into effect on 25 September 2018, stipulates that the system for combating illicit tobacco trafficking must be independent from the tobacco industry and those who represent its interests. For the moment, however, that’s far from the reality in many jurisdictions—including in the EU.

The tobacco industry’s relentless lobbying of the European Commission

The 54 anti-tobacco associations which make up SFP’s pan-European membership expressed concern about whether the European system complies with international law. They reported being especially troubled by the opportunity given to tobacco producers to choose and directly fund the database providers and the auditors of the system—a lack of independence and neutrality which is directly at odds with the criteria set out in the Protocol.

The Protocol to Eliminate Illicit Trade, which entered into force in 2018 after having been ratified by 40 states and must be implemented by 2023, was intended to tackle the growing problem of tobacco trafficking. Illicit trade is estimated to cause an annual tax loss of almost €20 billion for the 27 member states of the EU.

The publication of the SFP’s latest study follows numerous other expert reports, whether from national associations such as the National Committee against Tobacco (CNTC), academics, public health associations or working groups of cross-party MEPs—all of whose conclusions are unanimous.

This new publication comes at a time when Brussels is starting the revision of the Tobacco Products Directive, a process which has attracted criticism from the SFP due to the European Commission’s perceived lack of transparency and the tobacco industry’s relentless lobbying efforts.

A European system to be corrected between 2023 and 2024

To date, the EU’s tobacco tracking and tracing system does not appear to have netted additional tax revenues, with most member states even reporting significant reductions in tax collection since the system was implemented. While some believe that Covid-19 may also have played a role in causing these tax shortfalls, the shortfalls’ persistence reinforces doubts about the effectiveness of a system that has been widely condemned by a wide range of experts.

At this point, the European Commission and the 705 MEPs will have to wait until 2023 or 2024 to be able to correct the legal and technical shortcomings of the European system to track and trace tobacco products by finally bringing it into compliance with the World Health Organisation’s Protocol.


Photo credit: Robert Ruggiero for Unsplash.

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