Poland is frontline in EU battle with tobacco smugglers

The chocolate-brown labrador plunges into the car, scratching wildly, before a customs officer sets to work with a screwdriver and torch.

Minutes later, the officer wrenches apart an underfloor cache, pulls out a carton wrapped in black plastic and cuts it open to reveal 10 packets of cigarettes.

Bezledy is a Polish border crossing with Russia’s Baltic territory of Kaliningrad.

It is also on the front line in a battle against contraband cigarettes, which experts say now account for around 13 percent of sales in the European Union.

“We stop around five or a maximum 10 percent of vehicles,” said watch commander Mariusz Kuzia.

“Above all it’s based on risk analysis. For example, a person’s travel history. We have systems that log licence plates. We’re good psychologists, spotting nervous behaviour. And we also look out for changes to a vehicle’s construction,” Kuzia explained.

“But it’s also a matter of the officer’s gut instinct — or the dog’s,” he added.

Otherwise law-abiding smokers may see buying illicit cigarettes as a “victimless crime” amid ever-increasing taxes, or even fair game against mighty tobacco firms.

But experts estimate the underground trade cost European Union governments around 8.0 billion euros (10.5 billion dollars) in lost taxes last year.

The smugglers’ wiles seem boundless.

Searching cars and trucks, officers at Bezledy and other posts have found cigarettes stashed under false floors, in coffee jars, boxes of biscuits, footballs, loaves of bread and even a consignment of tripe.

At the end of 2008, in a drive to stifle peddling by border dwellers, the number of cigarettes an individual can import into Poland was slashed from 200 to 40.

The smuggler at Bezledy, who said his name was Dariusz, claimed he was trying to get by in an area where unemployment is around 40 percent.

“I don’t have any option. I’ve got a wife and two kids. I had an accident 10 years ago, so my hand’s disabled. If this didn’t pay off, I wouldn’t be doing it,” he said.

Dariusz, 34, acknowledged dozens of smuggling runs. He faced a 200-zloty (50-euro, 64-dollar) fine for his latest botched attempt.

Penalties are based on quantity, reaching 2,600 zloty for 630 packs. Larger-scale traffickers risk three years in prison for fraud.

Dariusz’s load was just 40 packets, or 800 cigarettes.

But that is a minute tip of a gigantic iceberg.

Experts estimate that 75 billion cigarettes are now smuggled into the EU each year, mostly via Russia and Ukraine, with all but three percent slipping under customs’ radar.

For smugglers, the trade makes business sense.

Costing the equivalent of around 50 euro cents a packet in Kaliningrad, contraband branded cigarettes sell for at least 1.50 euros in Poland and almost four in Germany. Over-the-counter prices are around 2.50 euros in Poland and five in Germany.

Overall, a gang’s return on investment is 375 percent, according to tobacco industry estimates.

“Small-scale smugglers used to do this here for food and rent money, but now it’s controlled by organised criminal gangs,” said Ryszard Chudy, deputy customs director for northern Poland.

“The cigarettes smuggled in are gathered together and then shifted around the country and the rest of the EU by the crime syndicates,” he said.

In 2009 officers at Bezledy seized almost 24 million cigarettes, which have either been destroyed or remain stacked in a high-security warehouse as evidence in pending court cases.

Nationwide, the haul was around 800 million cigarettes — out of a total 15-20 billion estimated have been smuggled in.

“We’re in a race against the traffickers,” said Chudy.

Tobacco firms have in the past faced criticism for allegedly failing to take contraband seriously.

“Tobacco transnationals have benefited from — and even been complicit in — illicit trade in tobacco,” said Gigi Kellett of the US-based watchdog group Corporate Accountability International.

“Illicit trade can open up new markets for brands … and addict new customers with lower-priced tobacco products that have evaded taxes,” she added.

Leading firms, however, are feeling the pinch, losing an estimated 700 million euros last year in Europe from illicit trading, and have created intelligence arms to tackle the threat.

“We consider it a serious crime. It hurts government revenues. But it also hurts our business. It’s not a level playing field,” said a senior British American Tobacco investigator, speaking anonymously due to the confidential nature of his work.

source: eubusiness.com

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