UCT tobacco taxation e-library a world first

28 January 2021 | Story Nadia Krige. Photo Klimkin, Pixabay. Read time 8 min.

A comprehensive new e-library focusing on tobacco taxation and illicit trade has been launched by the World Health Organization (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) Knowledge Hub at the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Research Unit on the Economics of Excisable Products (REEP). A project two-and-a-half-years in the making, it is set to be a valuable resource for students, researchers and policymakers across the globe. 

Covering a range of different dissemination modes — from journal articles and presentations, to data sets and grey literature — the purpose of the e-library is to consolidate and classify all available literature on tobacco taxation and illicit trade in tobacco products. Currently, the library includes links to more than 1 700 entries and will continue to be updated on a regular basis.


“It’s a well-known fact that increasing the excise tax on cigarettes and tobacco products is the single most important way of reducing tobacco use.”

While other e-libraries focusing on the economics of tobacco do exist, the WHO FCTC Knowledge Hub at REEP’s e-library is the first of its kind focusing specifically on the aspects of taxation and illicit trade, says Professor Corne Van Walbeek, director of REEP.

“It’s a well-known fact that increasing the excise tax on cigarettes and tobacco products is the single most important way of reducing tobacco use,” says Van Walbeek.

“So, the idea with the e-library was to consolidate the substantial body of work on tobacco taxation and illicit trade in tobacco products that already exists to make it easier for interested parties – whether academics, NGOs or policymakers – to access relevant information within a few clicks.”

Building the e-library

While the premise sounds simple enough, the process of building the e-library certainly came with its fair share of learning curves and challenges.

As programme manager of the WHO FCTC Knowledge Hub on tobacco taxation and illicit trade within REEP, Samantha Filby was the designated person for the job.

“One of our responsibilities is to disseminate information to parties in the FCTC treaty,” she explains. “We were doing this through a ‘Resource’ tab on our website but realised that a comprehensive e-library would make for a much more user-friendly solution.”

Filby used the reference lists of two seminal publications on tobacco taxation and the economics of tobacco as a starting point for the project. These two publications are the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) Handbook 14 Effectiveness of Price and Tax Policies for Tobacco Control (2011) and the National Cancer Institute (NCI) Monograph No. 21 The Economics of Tobacco and Tobacco Control (2017).

Working systematically through the reference lists, Filby created a spreadsheet detailing each author, year of publication, publication type (i.e. journal article/dissertation/working paper etc.), title, regional income category and the particular publication’s URL. To fill the gap between 2017 and more current publications, Filby continued her systemic search online using the keywords and keyword strings pertaining to specific topics. 

Transferring this information from spreadsheet format to a user-friendly e-library was no mean feat and required the expert assistance of two consultants: online content developer and website manager, Daniella Pollock-Rose and communication strategist, Anne Morgenroth. The team also received assistance from the FCTC’s IT department in Geneva.


“We want to have as many people as possible accessing the e-library.”

“The project really required a good deal of teamwork,” says Filby. “What makes it even more amazing is the fact that because everyone was based in different locations, everything happened entirely online.”

Using the e-library

This extraordinary collaborative effort has resulted in a particularly attractive and navigable e-library that can be accessed at https://untobaccocontrol.org/taxation/e-library/.

Publications in the e-library are classified according to a number of criteria, such as publication type (e.g. journal article, presentation, dataset), topic, region, and country income classification. Visitors can also use the search function to find literature published by a specific author or including information on a particular country.

According to Van Walbeek, the e-library is an excellent resource for anyone interested in research on tobacco taxation and illicit trade. This may include researchers, students, thinktanks and NGOs, as well as policymakers who are potentially interested in information regarding the countries they work in as well as global best practice.

“We want to have as many people as possible accessing the e-library,” he says. “We believe that it’s relatively user-friendly and allows people to get relevant information with the click of a few buttons.”

Initial response

Following the launch of the e-library on 21 January 2021, REEP and the FCTC Knowledge Hub at UCT have been overwhelmed by the positive response.

“I’ve received numerous emails from colleagues around the world congratulating us,” says Filby. “Fortunately, no one has picked up a bug or anything like that.”

She adds that they’d like to encourage the tobacco control community around the world to continue taking a keen interest and also to suggest any relevant resources that may not have been included in the e-library as yet. 

Incorporating artificial intelligence

Maintaining the e-library and keeping it up to date with the latest research on tobacco taxation and illicit trade in tobacco is Filby’s next big challenge.

While she is currently adding documents manually on a regular basis, automation plans using natural language processing (NLP) are in the pipeline. NLP is a field of Artificial Intelligence – in the form of an algorithm - that enables machines to read, understand and derive meaning from human languages.

“The idea is that we feed the machine the 1 700 articles that I’ve already classified as a kind of training exercise,” says Filby.

By doing this, the algorithm will be able to ‘learn’ which articles are relevant and, furthermore, how to categorise them appropriately in the e-library.

Of course, this process cannot happen overnight and Filby foresees about six months to a year of working closely with data science consultants on the machine learning project.

Visit the WHO FCTC Knowledge Hub on Tobacco Taxation & Illicit Trade (E-Library) at https://untobaccocontrol.org/taxation/e-library/.

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