Philip Morris Intl. Seeks to Make Serialized Bar Codes Work With EPC Network

By Beth Bacheldor

The ability to use EPC infrastructure, the cigarette maker says, will help it stop illegal trade and ensure the authenticity of its brands.

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Philip Morris International (PMI), an Altria Group division that sells tobacco products in all parts of the world except the United States, has designed track-and-trace and authentication systems using serialized, linear and 2-D bar codes designed to fight product counterfeiting and contraband.

The company hopes to extend these technologies so it can leverage the Electronic Product Code (EPC) network managed by EPCglobal, and plans to work with the nonprofit standards organization to make this goal a reality.


Brian Schulte

PMI manufactures 800 billion cigarettes a year, using 35 of its own factories and 23 factories operated by third parties. In Europe, it marks cases of its cigarettes with unique serialized ID numbers in the form of EAN-128 bar codes. Each bar code includes a GTIN 14 number, the product variant, the manufacturing date and time, the production center and a case packer number. PMI uses these numbers to track goods shipped from its manufacturing plants to distribution facilities and first customers.

Separately, PMI is rolling out a patent-pending, 2-D bar-code scheme called the Code Verification System (CVS), starting in Germany, Peru and the Ukraine. The CVS incorporates an encrypted, serialized 12-character number intended to identify and authenticate each pack and carton of cigarettes. Ultimately, PMI would like to converge the CVS with the EAN-128 bar codes, using the CVS code as the piece that provides the serialization.

Leveraging the EPCglobal network might strike some as unconventional, given that the network is essentially a standards-based collection of technologies and services created to enable companies to share data from RFID tags containing EPCs, not bar codes. The EPCglobal network contains several key elements, including the tag data standard, which defines standardized EPC tag data, including how it is encoded for use in the information systems layer of the network; the UHF Gen 2 air-interface standard; and software based on the EPC Information Services (EPCIS) protocol. EPCIS serves as the communication mechanism between applications and data repositories, from which a company can effectively exchange and query data within its own RFID processes and those of its partners. EPCIS-based middleware also automates the exchange of RFID data, because it allows for machine-to-machine communications.

Connectivity to the EPCglobal network will provide PMI a standard medium on which to more easily share its track-and-trace product data with suppliers, distributors, customers regulators and other business partners. “Our current solution will not scale all the way,” said Brian Schulte, director of data and information management with Altria Corporate Services Inc., the service organization that supports Altria Group’s operating companies. Schulte was addressing attendees of the RFID Academic Convocation, which took place during last week’s EPC Connection 2007 conference, in Chicago.

A year ago, PMI began working with the Auto-ID Labs at MIT to analyze its processes and use case, in the hope of better understanding how PMI’s track-and-trace and authentication systems might leverage the EPC network. Now, the company wants to get more directly involved with EPCglobal to determine whether there is an opportunity to leverage a translation mechanism within EPCglobal’s tag data standard that would allow its serialized bar codes to take advantage of the EPCglobal network. That, says Patrick Chanez, supervisor of PMI’s product tracking and security development, would require mapping the serialized bar codes to the tag data translation component for EPCIS interoperability.

From its work with the Auto-ID Labs, PMI has started developing a road map that might enable its systems to participate in the EPCglobal ecosystem. “Now we need to step up and play in the EPCIS world to ensure we are aligned,” says Schulte. “The move is important, because it would allow us to connect to a global standard. We are very anxious to be mainstream—to go where other industries are going.”

Having a standard way to communicate track-and-trace data would also open the door for PMI to more easily work with the many governments that closely monitor the tobacco industry. “We are regulated by multiple governments,” Schulte explained, “and the thing we don’t want is for different governments to ask us for different information in different formats.”

PMI’s track-and-trace system, and its use of serialized bar codes on cases, stems from a 2004 voluntary agreement with the European Union to reduce product counterfeiting and the smuggling of contraband into a country to avoid paying taxes. The company estimates that 20 billion counterfeit cigarettes bearing its brand names are produced each year. PMI has set up the ability to track cases at 300 internal and 200 customer read points, and Schulte expects more will be added. “The geographical scope of our tracking increases over time,” he says, “but the EU agreement does not list the countries because of security reasons.”

PMI isn’t against using RFID to track and trace its products, Schulte maintained, but for now, the cost of the tags is too high to enable it to tag individual packs or cartons of cigarettes. “We are no stranger to RFID,” he said. “We have dabbled in RFID, and in tests we have rolled out RFID to show that it is doable, but it is still cost-prohibitive.” That, in part, is why the company developed the CVS 2-D bar-code system, which prints serialized ID numbers on individual packs.

The CVS marking includes human-readable text that consumers can use to check with PMI and authenticate cigarette packs. In Germany, PMI already prints a hotline telephone number on each pack and has set up a call center that consumers can call to confirm that their cigarettes are authentic.

In an effort to stem counterfeiting, the U.K. government has announced a voluntary measure for tobacco companies to leverage covert security marks on individual packs of cigarettes sold in the United Kingdom. No details of the technology have yet been officially made public. “The fewer people who know what the technology is, the better,” says Ian Howell, spokesperson for the Tobacco Manufacturers’ Association (TMA), a trade association for tobacco companies operating in that country. “Experience has shown a large number of overt features that have been put on tobacco have been replicated to a degree that, to the casual observer, looks genuine.”

Therefore, to help thwart the creation of counterfeit goods with phony security markings that seem valid, the U.K. government and the TMA prefer to keep the security technology invisible. A few media reports have indicated the security marks will be RFID tags, but according to at least one industry source contacted by RFID Journal, the technology will not be RFID.