Following a trend set by drug traffickers, a new breed of tobacco smugglers is aiding terrorist outfits and India too could be affected soon, a top official of the World Health Organisation (WHO) has said.
"We know that international drug cartels have some links with terrorists but now proofs are emerging of illegal tobacco smugglers' links with terrorist outfits. Security agencies in the European Union (EU) have made considerable progress in investigating such cases," said Douglas Bettcher, coordinator of the framework convention team of WHO's tobacco free initiative.
"I would say that the EU is the worst sufferer at this point but any country including India could soon be a victim of this new development," Bettcher told IANS on the sidelines of Global Youth Meet on Health here Thursday.
Though the exact size of this illicit trade was yet to be ascertained, "we estimate that at least 350 billion cigarette sticks are now being smuggled every month across the world," the official said.
Apart from the EU, China, Brazil and Bhutan are some of the countries where tobacco smuggling is quite rampant, he said.
"With terrorism spreading its tentacles, the new development is startling and dangerous as well. Europol (the European Law Enforcement Organisation) is tracking such developments," said Bettcher.
Besides their terrorist links, the smugglers did not pay any taxes on smuggled goods, which are sold away cheaply in the grey market - on many an occasion without necessary health warnings.
"It brings a huge loss to the industry apart from damaging the public health.
"There are currently 1.3 billion addicted smokers across the globe of which five million die every year," he said, adding that more than 800,000 people die due to tobacco related diseases in India.
The expert said that a blanket ban on manufacturing tobacco products worldwide is not the solution.
"Supply has not much to do with the addiction. It's the awareness and a concerted effort from both the government and the masses that can help the cause."
While appreciating the Indian government's decision to ban tobacco-related advertisements, Bettcher said the health warning should be displayed over at least 30 percent of the cigarette packet.
Hiking taxes and thus prices of tobacco products can also check the health menace, he said, adding: "Curb the purchasing power of people."
"Many countries can learn from India's efforts and must comply with WHO protocol on tobacco adopted in 2003. Unfortunately, 53 member countries of WHO, including three major players like the US, Russia and Indonesia, are yet to adopt the protocol," Bettcher said.
He said two expert groups, one on banning the trans-border advertisement of tobacco and another on illicit trade, would prepare two drafts in the next couple of months.
The groups are expected to suggest ways to regulate Internet advertising of tobacco related products and to trace routes of illicit trade through satellite imagery.
India's K. Srinath Reddy, an eminent cardiologist and chief of HRIDAY-SHAN, an NGO working in the field of promoting better health among youngsters, is a key member of the first committee. He is also the chief of Public Health Foundation in India.
"Both the drafts will be presented in the general body meeting of the WHO's framework convention to control tobacco in June 2007."