Plain tobacco packaging disguises a growing global security threat ― Thomas Lesnak

MAY 25 ― There is one fundamental truth underpinning every criminal enterprise: if there is money in selling something, sell it. Sell a lot of it. Drugs, guns, music, movies, designer clothes, electronics, alcohol, oil or actual human beings, it doesn’t matter. If there’s a dollar to be pocketed, there’s a sale to be made. Having spent 30 years conducting global criminal investigations in more than 50 countries, I’ve interviewed hundreds of the “bad guys” and they all sing from the same money-making song book.

The mammoth global trade in illegal drugs is well known. International drug kingpins often have profiles rivalling those of A-list Hollywood celebrities. One was even recently interviewed, while on the lam from Mexican police following another prison break, by an Oscar-winning actor.

Virtually unknown to the public, and to the silver screen set, is a global criminal trade that rivals drug trafficking in size and profitability and its fast-becoming the darling of international criminal and terror organisations: illicit tobacco.

To the uninitiated, it’s easy to think of illegal tobacco as something harmlessly sold in the back of a neighbourhood convenience store or street corner. The reality is far more deadly.  The US State Department, Interpol, the United Nations and others view illegal tobacco as a worldwide epidemic that funds criminal and terrorist organisations. In March, 700 Canadian police officers conducted the largest tobacco smuggling bust in North American history. Their targets were funnelling profits to purchase cocaine and laundering money as far away as Europe. Recently authorities seized tobacco and guns destined for terrorist groups in Libya. 

Each year, more than 400 billion cigarettes are illegally sold globally, making it the most widely smuggled legal product in the world. Why? No other commodity is as easy to smuggle; simply stroll across a border and risk a possible slap on the wrist in exchange for massive profit.

The pattern of violent organisations trafficking tobacco is increasing globally at the same time governments propose new regulations that only the legal tobacco industry will follow. International tobacco traffickers have told us repeatedly that they have no intention to pay taxes or follow the law — this, of course, is what makes them criminals.

The introduction of “plain packaging” for all tobacco products sold in Australia is a perfect example of a government unwittingly making a crime already viewed as easy even easier and more profitable. 

This year the World Health Organization has made plain packaging the theme of its annual World No Tobacco Day. Much will be said about plain packaging being a valuable tool to help enhance public health. Unfortunately, little will be said about how plain packaging will enhance the bank balance of criminals and terrorists across the world. 

Australia was the first country to introduce plain packaging, which bans the use of all trademarks on tobacco packaging and requires that all tobacco products be sold in drab, virtually identical, government-designed packaging. The objective: reduce smoking. The results so far: a win for criminals.  

For example, a comprehensive 2014 KPMG report, found a nearly 25 per cent increase in illicit tobacco across Australia just two years after plain packaging came into force.  The problem has become so large that the Australian government was forced to set up a dedicated illicit tobacco strike team.

Criminals aren’t stupid. Take the Provisional IRA who rank among the world’s most prolific cigarette smugglers. Recent intelligence suggests they are studying how plain packaging — coming to Ireland in May — has caused illegal tobacco sales in Australia to soar. Nearly 30 per cent of cigarettes sold in Ireland are illegal, depleting government coffers of €600 million (RM2.7 billion) per year. Expect both figures to grow after May.

Across the Irish Sea, illegal tobacco costs the United Kingdom’s government a staggering £2 billion annually in lost revenue. The UK will soon impose plain packaging and no doubt their own criminals will closely watch the IRA to see how they too can fatten their wallets.  

In Canada, scene of March’s massive police raid, the Trudeau government has announced it will introduce plain packaging; music to the ears of those recently handcuffed by Canadian police.

Naturally, products sold by criminals cannot be trusted. Illegal tobacco poses significant health risks. Criminals do not follow strict manufacturing rules, often using substances such as floor sweepings and worse. Nor do criminals care who buys their products. They have no qualms about selling cheap cigarettes to minors and there is nothing to stop them from doing so.

At the global level, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Protocol to Eliminate Trade in Illicit Tobacco Products has the potential to disrupt illegal tobacco sales, but can also be undermined by the WHO ignoring real world results. The real world has spoken: plain packaging is a great friend to tobacco smugglers.

* Thomas Lesnak previously served for over 26 years with the US Department of State and the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives. Today he is a leading international brand integrity and security consultant working in private practice.

** This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail Online.