Tobacco giants Philip Morris, British American Tobacco and Japan Tobacco actively collude with cigarette smugglers to gain a foothold in lucrative developing markets, campaigners alleged on Wednesday.
"Transnationals benefit in a number of ways from the illicit trade in tobacco," said Kathyrn Mulvey, director of international policy with the lobby group Corporate Accountability International (CAI).
This includes establishing a brand presence in new markets, and getting more people addicted to cigarettes -- particularly children because smuggled tobacco is so cheap, she told journalists.
"Documents do show industry complicity in this deadly business," Mulvey added.
The World Health Organisation is meeting in Geneva to debate a new protocol on the illicit tobacco trade to the existing Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC).
"This week, governments have a new opportunity to prioritise health over trade and commercial interests, and hold tobacco transnationals accountable for the harms they cause," Mulvey said.
The illicit tobacco trade makes up approximately 10 percent of global tobacco sales and costs governments between 40-50 billion dollars (27-34 billion euros) every year, CAI said in a statement.
In African countries such as Nigeria, the rate is even higher at between 10 and 16 percent, said environmental and health activist Akinbode Oluwafemi.
Smuggled tobacco constitutes a "serious public health issue in Africa," he told journalists.
In Nigeria, a pack of smuggled cigarettes can be less than half price.
"It's cheaper than sweets, cheaper than any other item," Oluwafemi said.
Companies such as British American Tobacco are now seeking to portray themselves as anti-smuggling, with BAT offering to supply logistical support and even vehicles to the Standards Organisation of Nigeria.
However, these moves ignore the company's "long history of smuggling into Nigeria," which was documented in a probe by Britain's House of Commons, Oluwafemi said.
CAI said that only a strong protocol to the WHO treaty would be effective in holding companies to account.
"If history is any indication, the tobacco industry will take every opportunity to undermine the treaty's implementation," Oluwafemi warned.
The WHO said last week that tobacco use could kill more than one billion people around the world this century unless governments and civil society act to reverse the epidemic.