Many of the 192 member countries of the World Health Organization are taking part in negotiations in Geneva to finalize the text of an international convention to control tobacco. One of the major goals of the convention is to halt tobacco smuggling.
World Health Organization officials say cigarettes are the world's most widely smuggled product. They add that, according to the World Bank, smuggled cigarettes account for at least six percent of all cigarettes consumed around the world.
Nearly a fifth of all cigarettes are exported and almost a third of those exports, about 355 billion cigarettes a year, end up on the contraband market.
Officials at the World Health Organization blame the major tobacco companies for much of the smuggling. They say the companies benefit in two ways: It enables them to increase their market share and to evade billions of dollars in taxes that governments impose on cigarettes.
Luc Joossens is the chief adviser to the health agency on the smuggling issue. In remarks Thursday in Geneva, Dr. Joossens charged that U.S. tobacco companies must be aware that billions of their cigarettes are smuggled.
"How could you imagine that cigarettes are exported and that industry doesn't know where they are going, and that each month cigarettes arrive in a specific market," he asked. "The final decision whether the industry is complicit or no, it's not up to us to say that. But there are indications that they know what's going on. But the final decision on whether they are complicit is up to the courts to decide."
As an example of the way cigarette smuggling works, Dr. Joossens laid out how a shipment of smuggled cigarettes made its way to Iraq.
"Cigarettes came from Puerto Rico to Spain, from Spain they went to Cyprus, from Cyprus they were declared to be going to Russia, then in fact they didn't go to Russia, they went to Turkey and Lebanon, and crossed the border into Iraq," he said.
Dr. Joossens said he obtained this information from documents that the European Union filed earlier this year in a lawsuit against three multinational companies.
Dr. Joossens also disputed claims that cigarette smuggling is a problem affecting only countries with high tobacco taxes. He pointed out that smuggling is a major problem in Africa, despite the fact that prices are generally lower there than in many other parts of the world.
The World Health Organization is proposing several measures to fight cigarette smuggling. It wants, among other things, stricter licensing of all tobacco products and greater oversight of how cigarettes are distributed.
The organization says if countries around the world cooperate in implementing these measures they will save millions of lives and gain billions of dollars in tax revenues.
In a statement submitted to the Geneva tobacco talks, the Philip Morris Company, the largest tobacco company in the United States, denied any involvement in smuggling operations. Philip Morris said that it has suspended or severed relationships with customers and distributors whose accounting and controls were inadequate.