The MENAce of illegal trade – we’re stronger together

March 27, 2018

This week, I have the privilege of taking part in a panel discussion at the MENA-OECD Business Integrity Network conference Institutionalising public - private dialogue to fight against corruption in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.

I am always keen to attend events like this, which provide an opportunity to collaborate and share learnings, experience and best practices in protecting business and society from criminal activity.  

The black market is a serious and growing threat to society. Through smuggling, counterfeit and tax evasion, governments are losing billions in lost tax revenues, legitimate businesses are being undermined, and consumers are being exposed to poorly made and unregulated products. Also, clear links have been found between the revenues generated by these crimes and the funding of organized crime, even terrorism.

It’s not just luxury goods that are counterfeited or smuggled and sold illegally. Medicines, cosmetics, toys, electronics and cigarettes can be widely found on the black market. Anything in high demand is attractive to counterfeiters and smugglers.

Cigarettes are among the most illegally trafficked goods in the world. The value of the illicit tobacco trade is estimated to be greater than the illicit trade in oil, wildlife, timber, arts and cultural property, and blood diamonds combined.

Criminals are increasingly attracted to the high profits and minimal risks associated with trafficking illegal cigarettes. And the MENA region is particularly exposed. For example, a KPMG study published last year showed 1 in 5 cigarettes in the Maghreb region were consumed illegally in 2016, depriving governments of over $565m in lost tax revenues.  

The study, commissioned by PMI, also found smuggling of cigarettes forms just one part of a broader illicit trade landscape, whereby commodities such as fuel and food are smuggled across borders to be sold at cheaper prices.

Fortunately, policymakers are becoming more aware of this phenomenon and are taking steps to combat it.

In the US, as part of the National Defense Authorization Act, Congress has directed the Pentagon and other federal agencies to monitor the impact of the illicit tobacco trade and outline steps they are taking to combat it.  Also, the US Senate Armed Services Committee has stated that it is “concerned by the illicit trade in tobacco and its propensity to fund transnational organized crime and terrorist groups.”

It is clear that the perception of the illicit tobacco trade as a victimless crime is changing, and that its role in funding terrorism and crime is being taken seriously. Governments in the MENA region have taken drastic measures in recent years at their borders and within their country to address the issue.

Cooperation and collaboration – that’s the only way to crack down on the black market. Governments and law enforcement officials can sometimes struggle to keep pace with tackling the problem alone.

Preventing illicit trade of tobacco is one of Philip Morris International’s core business strategies.

Fighting against the diversion of our products, and more generally against illicit trade in tobacco products, is a key component of our sustainability program. Fighting illicit trade links directly to combatting corruption, contributing to improving human rights, labor rights and environmental standards, principles that organizations involved in illicit trade often ignore or violate. Events in Libya illustrate how a lack of governance and a high level of corruption can lead to a country being a major platform of illicit trade and human trafficking. 

Private sector, government and civil society have to foster truly inclusive and committed public-private partnerships that address future challenges in illicit trade, including the growing role of innovation and tracking and tracing technology alongside other more generally accepted approaches through regulation and law enforcement.

However, many key stakeholder groups lack the means to fight illicit trade due to insufficient training, limited capacity, or simply because they do not have access to funding platforms.

Recognizing these gaps, in 2016 PMI launched PMI IMPACT, a first of its kind US$ 100 million global initiative funding public, private and NGO projects aimed at tackling illegal trade and related crimes, such as corruption, money laundering, and organized crime.

Our fight against illegal trade is more effective working with others. Partnerships and pioneering, innovative approaches to problem solving will hopefully keep us one step ahead and outsmart the criminals.


Written by Philippe Van Gils

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