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Illicit trade protocol: the weakest link: invited commentary
  1. Deborah Sy
  1. Correspondence to Dr Deborah Sy, Adjunct Professor, Harrison Institute, Georgetown University, USA; ds557{at}

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The article ‘From cigarette smuggling to illicit tobacco trade’1 exposes the modus operandi in illicit trade that highlights the need for global cooperation in eliminating the illicit trade of tobacco products (see page 230). It must be emphasised as well that the protocol can only be as strong as the weakest link in the chain of states that will participate in it. Ideally, all countries currently identified in the smuggling route or territories that could potentially serve as a transit point should participate and agree to be bound by the protocol. It bears stressing that many of these countries are developing countries.

Hence, any recommendation for a robust protocol on the illicit trade of tobacco products should reflect the capacity and needs of developing nations. A ‘strong’ protocol could mean a binding instrument that has comprehensive regulatory measures, strict obligations with commensurate sanctions for non-compliance, and measures to make non-complying states accountable. Comprehensive measures to curb any form of smuggling require, to say the least, some level of infrastructure (more so for porous borders) to control the borders. This includes technology to enable efficient monitoring (eg, computers, including electricity to run them, vehicles for officials, machinery for destruction of seized items), and increase in skilled personnel or investment in building their capacity.

A commitment to undertake obligations under a ‘strong’ protocol would mean nothing if the state is not willing to invest resources to control its borders. For some developing nations that indiscriminately accept private sector support, there is a very high risk that the tobacco industry would offer to undertake such investments as a form of ‘corporate social responsibility’ or ‘public relations activity’, thereby creating ‘partnerships’ or a perception of partnerships with governments that could, in turn, create opportunities to influence governments in their tobacco control policy.

Unless the ‘strong’ protocol provides clear mechanisms of assistance, including financial mechanisms for developing countries, and/or includes strong conflict of interest rules, it can potentially make the state vulnerable to violating Article 5.3 of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, the obligation to protect public health policies from the commercial and vested interests of the tobacco industry.



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  • Competing interests None.

  • Provenance and peer review Commissioned; internally peer reviewed.

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