A senior World Health Organisation (WHO) official has called on India to impose a levy on airline tickets to help buy drugs to treat HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis for the world's poorest people.

Such a move would be a win-win for India, according to Denis Broun, executive director of the drug-buying agency UNITAID, which is hosted and administered by the WHO. Speaking in New Delhi, Mr Broun said he was trying to persuade the Indian government to join UNITAID and its programme of using nominal taxes imposed on airline tickets to obtain quality medicines at the lowest possible prices.

UNITAID is proposing that India should impose a levy of just 10 rupees per ticket on domestic flights and US$1 on international journeys, said Mr Broun, who has been holding what he called very early-stage negotiations on the proposals with Indian health and civil aviation officials.

He pointed out that, with India accounting for some 80% of all drugs procured by UNITAID for poor nations, the initiative would also be of great benefit to the nation's pharmaceutical industry. "Whatever money the Indian government would collect from this tax would get reinvested into the Indian pharma sector, from where we do most of our resourcing," he said.

He also pointed out that at least 35,000 Indian children are currently being created with paediatric HIV drugs paid for by UNITAID.

The agency began its air ticket levy initiative in 2006. Since then, 10 countries have signed up to it and it currently generates around $200 million a year for heavily-discounted medicines obtained from drug makers for the world's poorest nations.

"What we want in India is a similar system by which a very small contribution which is painless to the traveler can be applied to large numbers of travelers. Since air traffic is very high in India, the small amount of levy makes a huge difference to the amount of drugs that we can purchase and the number of poor who can benefit from them," Mr Broun told the AlertNet news service.

Indian airlines are currently suffering from huge debts and losses, but the country's air travel market is still the fastest-growing among the major economies, carrying around 61 million passengers last year.

"We buy most of our drugs from India so in a sense what would the tax do? It would go back into the Indian economy into the pharmaceutical sector. So it's difficult to find arguments to say it would be bad," Mr Broun told AlertNet.

Already signed up for the air ticket levy initiative are Brazil, Cameroon, Chile, Congo, France, Madagascar, Mali, Mauritius, Niger and South Korea. This scheme is central to UNITAID's policy of "innovative financing," which is about "opening the door to new, private players to join the fight against poverty and ill-health -  it is about leveraging the benefits of mass economies," says the agency's executive board chair, Philippe Douste-Blazy.

"What has been accomplished with air ticket levies and mass tourism could be mirrored tomorrow in other economic sectors, such as communications, the Internet, financial transactions, the tobacco industry, etc. These are activities that profit most from economic globalisation but, paradoxically, contribute the least to the financing of global public goods," he says.