Tobacco lobby aims to derail WHO on tax increases

By Duncan Robinson in BrusselsAuthor alerts

A tobacco-industry funded lobby group will attempt to derail a World Health Organisation summit aimed at agreeing increased taxes on smoking, according to leaked documents seen by the Financial Times.

The International Tax and Investment Centre, which is sponsored by all four major tobacco groups, will meet on the eve of the WHO’s global summit on tobacco policy in Moscow later this month in a bid to head off unwanted duty increases.

According to an invitation seen by the Financial Times, the ITIC has asked representatives from ministries of finance around the world to a private meeting that will “ensure there is a balanced approach to important excise taxation issues”.

The meeting comes in spite of rules aimed at banning tobacco companies from interfering with anti-tobacco policies. Signatories of the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which provides global guidelines on antismoking policies, are obliged to “protect” legislation from the tobacco industry’s lobbying.

The WHO has taken the step of sending delegates attending the conference a warning letter about the ITIC meeting, reminding attendees about their obligations not to let the tobacco industry influence anti-tobacco policy.

Deborah Arnott, chief executive of antismoking charity ASH, said: “Of course the ITIC is arguing against the WHO tobacco tax guidelines – it’s funded by the big tobacco multinationals. The WHO has quite rightly warned governments to stay away from this industry front group.”

All four of the major international tobacco companies, including British American Tobacco and Philip Morris International, are sponsors of the ITIC and have representatives on its board of directors, along with other large multinationals.

Daniel Witt, president of ITIC, defended the meeting. “ITIC serves as a neutral forum for discussions on tax and investment policy – a place where governments can go for technically sound, objective, and field-tested advice.”

He added: “It is our understanding that this briefing is fully compliant with the [the WHO’s] FCTC.”

The private meeting, which is being held in a luxury hotel in Moscow, will be “closed to media and industry representatives”. It is being run in conjunction with the Eurasian Economic Commission, the newly formed customs union between Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan.

The invitation states: “The purpose of the briefing will be to assemble Ministry of Finance and Tax Administration representatives ahead of the WHO meeting to review international practices on tobacco excise taxation.”

The tobacco industry argues that it should have a say when it comes to tax issues. However, the WHO will debate measures aimed at ensuring tax policies are “protected” from the industry at the conference, which starts in Moscow on 13 October.

Antismoking advocates argue that increased excise duties are one of the most effective ways of reducing cigarette consumption. But higher taxes on cigarettes can lead to increased profitability at large tobacco companies, which can raise their prices beneath any duty increases.