A World Health Organization group on Monday voted to kick out members of the public in a meeting in Russia before debating and voting on a recommendation to significantly increase taxes on cigarettes around the world.
The sixth meeting of the WHO's Framework Convention on Tobacco Control started on Monday, and is expected to end the week with an agreement that countries should impose an excise tax that will double or even triple the price of cigarettes in most countries. That tax is likely to do significant harm to U.S. tobacco growers, who are the source of tobacco for many cigarette makers around the world.
The WHO has notoriously kept these meetings private, and removed everyone from a meeting two years ago, apparently over worries that members of the tobacco industry might be present.
On Monday, the group did the same thing, according to a Washington Times reporter who was in Russia for the meeting.
"We don't know who these people are," said Mohamed Ibrahim Saleh Daganee, who is Libya's chief delegate, according to the Times. Another delegate said, "I don't see the usefulness of having the public in these meetings," that report said.
The proposal under consideration would recommend that countries raises excise taxes on cigarettes so the excise tax equals at least 70 percent of their retail cost. According to one economist, that could raise prices on cigarettes in India from $2.42 a pack to $9.88 a pack. Ukraine, China, Peru and other countries would likely see similar huge increases.
While the aim of the conference is to raise taxes to fund anti-smoking programs, economist Arthur Laffer wrote a book saying price hikes of this magnitude would create illegal markets for cigarettes and actually deprive governments of the revenues they're seeking.
The meeting comes even as the WHO is struggling to deal with an Ebola outbreak that is now threatening to spread to Europe and the United States. But WHO Director Margaret Chan defended the tobacco meeting by saying Ebola is not the only issue the body can be concerned about.
"Yes, Ebola is truly an issue of international concern," she said to reporters today. "But, you know, tobacco. If we put the evidence on the table, tobacco control is the still the most cost-effective and efficient way of reducing unnecessary disease and death arising from using such harmful products."
As reported earlier this month, the U.S. did not send a delegation to the meeting, and Canada didn't either, due to protests over Russia's move to annex Crimea.
That means the WHO meeting will likely approve the tax hike without any direct U.S. input. It will also happen without other industry observers as well — according to one source following the conference, the WHO prevented INTERPOL, an international body that facilitates police cooperation, and the World Farmers Organization from observing.