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#Tobacco 'Track and Trace': When the fox is guarding the hen house




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When the European Commission (EC) published its final draft proposal on a cigarette track and trace (T&T) system, it was quickly criticized for leaving a backdoor for the tobacco industry. The EC sternly rejected the criticism, but condemnation continues to come in from all sides. The locus of the fiercest opprobrium is the fact that the system currently being explored would be a mixture between a third party-operated and an industry-controlled system. Since Big Tobacco naturally represents a vested interest, a system split in such a way would not just violate international agreements like the World Health Organisation (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) – it would also violate common sense.

Big Tobacco is already ensuring its smoky tentacles are clogging up the process. Katharina Kummer Peiry, a senior legal officer of the WHO’s FCTC Secretariat, has been accusing the tobacco industry of “interfering” to slow down the global FCTC ratification process. Industry representatives have also sought to convince several countries that the EU’s proposed system will be too complex and that the tobacco industry can offer a better one. They also insist that giving the job of overseeing the T&T project to an unrelated third party is tantamount to squandering millions, while stoking fallacious concern that independent “proprietary solution providers [will push] unproven solutions on to governments.”

That‘s quite a statement from an industry with a proven track record of trying to subvert international bodies and do exactly that. To do so, the four big tobacco companies – British American Tobacco (BAT), Imperial Tobacco Group, Japan Tobacco International and Philip Morris International (PMI) – joined hands to form the benign-sounding Digital Coding and Tracking Association (DCTA). Under its guise, the companies sought to turn the European Committee for Standardization (CEN) into a Trojan Horse to lobby for the use of its own tracing technology, Codentify – but were stopped in their tracks last year.

In 2016, Codentify’s ownership was transferred to French group Impala and rebranded as Inexto, supposedly fully independent of the tobacco industry. Given that the firm is run by former PMI heavyweights, this claim is hardly credible. Its managing director is Philippe Chatelain, the brains behind the Codentify system and PMI’s Director of Product Tracking Intelligence & Security for 14 years.

But one year on, the EC does not seem to have learned any lessons about tobacco’s trustworthiness. Not only has it caved to Big Tobacco’s pressure, but is so keen to pacify the tobacco sector that its proposal is violating its own standards. Article 8 of the “Commission Implementing Decision on technical standards for security features applied to tobacco products” is dedicated to the ‘independence of authentication element providers’ and notes several criteria a provider must fulfil to be considered independent. The draft regulation defines a company independent from undue influence if it gets no more than 20% of its income from the tobacco industry. Needless to say, Inexto cannot be said to meet any of them.

But the tobacco industry is not satisfied with this lobbying victory. It’s also taking aim at rival and favoured candidate for running the third-party segment of the T&T system, Lausanne-based company SICPA. A fierce campaign was unleashed against the company in the weeks before the proposal’s publication, arguing that if the Commission awards the contract to the printing technology firm, it would be granting it a monopoly over the track and trace sector – although that sector is by no means limited to tobacco and is a huge untapped market.


Big Tobacco’s motives were rather transparent here, for this is not the first time big tobacco has attempted to score points against SICPA when its own interests are at risk. An earlier campaign in Kenya backfired when BAT’s allegations only served to draw attention to its propensity to bribe officials, such as former Kenyan Justice Minister Martha Karua. She allegedly received around £50,000 in order to supply BAT with confidential information it could use against its competitors.

Yet bribery is only the tip of the iceberg. An investigation by The Guardian found that BAT, along with other multinational tobacco firms, has threatened governments in at least eight countries across Africa, demanding that measures designed to discourage smoking be watered down or abandoned. According to the report, even warning packets on cigarette packets, for example, were lambasted as “an unjustifiable barrier to international trade”.

Considering this amount of malicious activity, the problem is that the European Commission is trying to play nicely with an industry that has never and will never play nice. Tobacco’s aim remains profit over people, and it has demonstrated this time and time again. So the fact that the European Commission is diluting the application of the FCTC in Europe to tobacco’s benefit is nothing short of tragic.

The tobacco industry has a vested interest in ensuring that an independent tracing system is not all that independent. And although cigarette producers were found to be complicit in smuggling operations as recently as 2014, it looks increasingly like the EC will allow Big Tobacco to have its way and exert some influence over the technical side of its T&T.

Cigarette packs may well be tracked, but if the tobacco industry has its way, they won’t easily be traced.

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