FILE - Cigarette packs are displayed at a smoke shop in New York.
FILE - Cigarette packs are displayed at a smoke shop in New York.

GENEVA - The World Health Organization is calling for an end to the illicit trade in tobacco products, which reportedly rakes in yearly profits of $31 billion.  In advance of World No Tobacco Day (May 31), the U.N. agency is urging member states to sign an international treaty to eliminate this nefarious trade.  

While the peddlers of contraband cigarettes and other tobacco products are getting richer, everyone else is getting poorer.  The price of a single cigarette sold on a city street corner may be cheap, but the health costs resulting from this trade are not.    

The World Health Organization estimates one person dies from tobacco-linked disease every six seconds.  That comes to almost six million premature deaths a year.  

The agency predicts this figure will rise to more than eight million a year by 2030, if nothing is done to stop the global tobacco epidemic.  More than 80 percent of these preventable deaths will occur in low-and-middle income countries.  

Director of the WHO’s Department for the Prevention of Non-communicable Diseases, Douglas Bettcher, calls the illicit tobacco trade a multi-headed monster.

“It has dreadful health consequences, especially for children because it presents brand named cigarettes at a much cheaper price.  Children and adolescents are much more vulnerable, therefore they get hooked for life and they get addicted and they eventually die," he said.  "It feeds the proliferation of transnational organized crime, another head of this multi-headed monster and it drains resources, taxes, revenue from the purses of ministries of finance, governmental coffers."

The World Health Organization says low-income countries depend heavily on consumption taxes and illicit tobacco trade robs their treasuries of money that could be spent on providing public services, including health care.   

The agency says internal industry documents released as a result of court cases show the tobacco industry has actively fostered the illicit trade globally.  

Head of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control Secretariat, Vera da Costa e Silva, says the tobacco industry and health sector are irreconcilable.

“There are cases where the industry takes advantage of the manufacture of illicit trade in neighbor countries to just enter in the market of a third country and to just increase their market share especially competing with other companies," said Silva.

Eight countries have ratified the Protocol to Eliminate the Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products.  Forty ratifications are needed for it to become international law.  Once that happens a wide range of measures will kick in to track and trace the illicit tobacco supply chain.  

Under the treaty, governments could impose penal sanctions on those trafficking in this illegal product.  Other provisions would criminalize illicit production and cross-border smuggling.