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WHO Opens Talks to Ban Illicit Tobacco Trade

Representatives from more than 150 countries have opened negotiations on an international treaty to combat illicit trade in tobacco products. The World Health Organization warns the smuggling of cheap cigarettes worsens the health hazard from smoking that kills 5.4 million people a year. Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from Geneva.

The president of the negotiating panel, Hatai Chitanondh, unveils the so-called death clock before a group of health experts and anti-tobacco campaigners.

"As I speak before you now, one tobacco user will die every 6.5 seconds and by the time this first session of the intergovernmental negotiated body ends this Saturday, more than 60,000 people will perish," said Hatai Chitanondh.

The death clock has counted more than 36 million deaths since it was started on October 25, 1999. That was when the World Health Organization began its first meeting aimed at achieving a Tobacco Control Treaty.

The World Health Organization says if current trends continue, eight million people a year will lose their lives to tobacco by 2030. And, this number will increase to one billion by the end of the century. Eighty percent of these deaths will occur in the developing world.

Director of WHO's Tobacco Free Initiative, Douglas Bettcher, tells VOA the illicit trade in tobacco products undermines efforts to reduce tobacco use and save lives. He says smuggled tobacco products help fund organized crime and terrorist organizations, and costs governments billions in revenue.

"What happens is hundreds of billions of smuggled cigarettes are dumped onto markets, particularly developing country markets without taxes paid," said Douglas Bettcher. "So, it means cheaper, brand name tobacco products are dumped at cheap prices in developing countries, which means that poorer groups which are more price sensitive will consume more of this deadly cocktail, this highly addictive drug and more will die."

Bettcher says smuggled cigarettes are particularly threatening to young people because they are cheap and affordable.

Experts estimate in 2006, illicit trade accounted for nearly 11 percent of global cigarette sales, or about 600 billion cigarettes. They say this lethal trade is worth about $60 billion a year.