Philip Morris International Taking Proactive Role to Help Consumers Know, Fight Illegal Trade
WASHINGTON — Illegal trade isn’t good. It’s not good for companies who depend on the revenue from their products to expand and add jobs, and it’s certainly not good for the consumers who unknowingly shell out considerable sums of money for knockoffs that ultimately fall far short of their expectations. In fact, it’s only good for criminals.
Since June 2021, USA-IT, also known as United to Safeguard America from Illegal Trade, has been striving to arm local officials, law enforcement and other leaders with the information they need to combat this black-market trade.
Led by Philip Morris International, the coalition is composed of state and national brand enforcement experts, law enforcement agencies and leading business organizations that together combat the wide range of threats posed by illegal trade, including counterfeiting, smuggling, organized retail theft, and drug and human trafficking.
USA-IT has engaged more than 85 national and state partners; helped train more than 33,000 law enforcement officials; briefed over 200 organizations and officials; and hosted and attended more than 65 events including a December 2021 summit in Washington, D.C., where they presented the coalition’s 2021 policy recommendations.
Recently, The Well News caught up with Kristin Reif, director of Illicit Trade Prevention at Philip Morris International, a founding USA-IT member.
Reif has been with PMI for 11 ½ years, and has led hundreds of trainings around the globe for international organizations and Homeland Security investigations, Customs and Border Protection, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Joint Terrorism Task Forces.
She was interviewed by Tetiana Anderson.
PMI came by its interest in combating illegal trade naturally. Early on, its focus was on dealing with the counterfeiting of cigarettes and other tobacco products, seeking to hold to account those who violated its trademarks by selling copycat goods.
Then the pandemic hit and it leveraged its expertise to help the Department of Homeland Security, other branches of the federal government and their colleagues in other businesses crack down on the then-booming illegal trade in bogus N-95 masks, hand sanitizer and other products needed to prevent COVID-19 infection.
It’s exciting work, Kristin Reif said.
“We literally get to chase bad guys who are counterfeiting and selling contraband and smuggling and evading taxes,” she explained. “But what we’ve seen is that this spills over and there is a convergence with so many other illicit activities, whether it be drugs, guns, money laundering — or even human trafficking.”
One of the biggest challenges in this effort is the buying habits of consumers. Today, the biggest marketplace for illicit goods is also the biggest marketplace for legal goods — online retail.
That’s why PMI and other members of USA-IT are pushing for more transparency in online platforms.
Though the cynics among us might be tempted to dismiss the coalition’s efforts as self-serving, its members contend illegal trade absolutely puts American communities in jeopardy.
That’s because it isn’t only the individual consumer that’s victimized by a raw deal. It has been estimated that state and local governments in the U.S. lose a combined $7 billion in tax revenue annually as a result of illicit tobacco.
As one might expect, inflation and consumer prices, which continue to rise at a historically fast pace, have only exacerbated the illicit trade problem. Simply put — as more people try to save money, more cheaply made counterfeits are being sold.
That’s forced the coalition to work even harder to make consumers aware of the fact the knockoff they’re buying off the street and on the internet isn’t just putting money in one seller’s pocket, it’s supporting an entire criminal network that was involved in its making, distribution and its sale.
The USA-IT coalition came together because several leaders in brand integrity, companies like Merck, Procter and Gamble, and PMI realized they couldn’t be siloed if they truly wanted to be effective.
Being a broad coalition that works with a wide range of law enforcement and government entities enables USA-IT to cover a lot of industries, a lot of products and a lot of consumer touchpoints.
It has also allowed the coalition to move beyond simply raising public awareness about the problem to advocating for stronger state and federal laws to protect consumers, business and the tax bases of local communities.
State and federal officials each have a role to play in the effort to turn back the tide of illicit commerce.
In recent years, thanks to the efforts of USA-IT and partners, a number of states have passed laws and created special task forces to combat organized retail crime.
On the federal level, a bipartisan anti-illicit trade-based money laundering resolution has been introduced by Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., and there has been a lot of discussion in both houses of Congress about the INFORM Consumers Act, which would raise the transparency requirements for online platforms that sell directly to consumers.
But there’s always more to do: Criminals are only too happy to take advantage of legal loopholes, and additional steps need to be taken to better coordinate efforts between different law enforcement entities and smooth jurisdictional challenges.
As smoking has declined in the U.S. and the prevalence of vaping increased, the Food and Drug Administration has become more rigorous about policing vapes and other alternatives to the traditional combustible cigarette.
While companies like PMI understand the FDA’s role in these matters, it also offers words of friendly caution: Whenever a product is taken off the market, some criminal, somewhere, will try to fill that void.
Therefore, it’s critical that as one product is taken off the market, other products are authorized to give adult consumers a legal product to switch to.
Criminals don’t care what illicit product they profit from, they’ll traffic in anything that makes them money.
Some consumers may be tempted to say, “Who does the sale of a counterfeit cigarette hurt anyway?” The truth is that a single transaction has massive ripple effects.
This article was produced in partnership with and paid for by Philip Morris International.