One of its main missions was to confront the growing issue of illicit tobacco trade - a black market costing taxpayers billions annually, which was complied into a list of provisions called the Illicit Trade Protocol (ITP).
The ITP was established to protect consumers from harmful products and prevent tax evasion. It aimed to implement a new way to monitor tobacco products around the world and replace a model of stamps and labels that have been shown to be quite ineffective. One of the central ways to monitor product movement is with a reliable “Track and Trace” system - one that allows intergovernmental agencies like INTERPOL to verify authenticity and confirm where a given product went into the hands of the black market.
Since the FCTC was introduced, however, no such system had been implemented. But in 2011, PMI reportedly donated 15 Million Euros to INTERPOL to help fight the trafficking of illicit tobacco goods - a total constituting 25% of INTERPOL’s annual budget. That substantial donation was intended to be motivation for INTERPOL to accept and comply with PMI’s very own system called “Codentify”.
But Joossens and Gilmore point out three glaring issues of implementing such a system.
First, the authors expose major limitations in the Codentify system. At a glance, Codentify’s labels seem like a sophisticated 12-digit code of letters and numbers. In fact, the patent claims that all codes are produced and encrypted through government agencies before they are put on products - therefore eliminating a need to store the codes on a database. This seemingly makes the process more secure than traditional methods. But really, this Codentify facilitates many of the issues such a system was intended to prevent according to ITP. For example, if a code is used more than once, the Codentify system cannot determine on its own which one of the products is authentic and which is counterfeit. Moreover, the fact that is it easily legible makes it just as easy to copy and use for counterfeiting purposes. However, the authors’ main concern regarding Codentify’s technological limitations is how it fails to meet the ITP’s standards for a reliable “Track and Trace” system for monitoring products. Since it neither stores and registers the codes after the product is manufactured nor provides crucial shipping information, there is no way to monitor a product’s path in any detailed or nuanced fashion - thereby voiding the central request of the ITP.
A second major concern of Joossens and Gilmore is how INTERPOL has reacted in the face of Codentify’s unsettling limitations. INTERPOL consistently stands by Codentify, despite the limitations described above, and has already set up a Global Register for products that connects to the Codentify system of product information . And while Codentify is supposed to be preventing the multifaceted issues of illicit trade, namely Smuggling, Tax Evasion, and Counterfeiting, INTERPOL has been found to focus much more effort on the counterfeiting issue, which represents only 13% of the illicit industry and harms Big Tobacco more than smuggling and tax evasion . Joossens and Gilmore further question INTERPOL’s integrity by exposing a clear contradiction in their own Regulations for accepting donations, which states that the source of any donation must be compatible with INTERPOL’s principles, aims, and activities. Meanwhile, all four major tobacco companies, including PMI, have been found to be heavily involved in the illicit trade .
But the third and possibly most disturbing concern that the authors point out surrounding PMI’s Codentify and the INTERPOL donation, is the blatant conflict of interest that would exist if PMI and its competitors were able to control the system meant to regulate their own industry. Such a precedent subverts any kind of integrity with regards to regulating and policing the tobacco industry, and serves only to bolster a corrupt alliance of corporations who capitalise on addiction and exploit the gaps in International policy.
In no way are the authors surprised by the actions of Big Tobacco in their efforts to control the means regulations. They are, however, surprised by INTERPOL for taking money from PMI, despite all of the signs that should tell them otherwise. Joossens and Gilmore expose a real concern for Europe, and moreover highlight the glaring contradictions and corruption that has permeated an intergovernmental agency whose job is protect us from the same individuals with whom they are colluding.
Up next we will explore how these corrupting implications and a lackluster system like Codentify take money out the common citizen’s pocket and into the hand’s of global terrorist organizations.