Illicit trade in tobacco products presents a threat to public health because it undermines the use of tax and price policies, which are among the most effective mechanisms for reducing tobacco consumption. Parties to the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) are in the final stages of negotiating a protocol aimed at strengthening international cooperation in the fight against illicit tobacco trade. While an effective multilateral response to illicit tobacco trade would make a significant contribution to global tobacco control, achieving this through the FCTC forum is challenging. First, while illicit tobacco trade is a health problem, the expertise, experience and capacity needed to combat illicit trade are not traditionally found in health agencies. The development of links with other agencies, both domestic and international, is critical to ensure both an effective response and an efficient use of limited governmental and non-governmental resources. Second, in many parts of the world, the tobacco industry cooperates closely with governments in the combating of illicit trade. This cooperation poses risks for tobacco control, particularly if relationships and norms of cooperation spill over into other areas of FCTC implementation. An examination of the industry’s positioning suggests that it sees an opportunity to portray itself as ‘legitimate’ and ‘responsible’, a friend of governments, and a way to integrate itself into FCTC processes. This paper makes suggestions for moving forward in this challenging area towards ensuring that the approach taken actually reduces illicit tobacco trade, strengthens tobacco tax policies and does not operate to undermine the FCTC.
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