Smuggling cigarettes

Other Names:
Running contraband tobacco
Avoiding cigarette duty

Selling cigarettes directly to smugglers or to distributors known to sell to smugglers; labeling, mislabeling, or failing to label cigarettes in such a way so as to facilitate the activities of smugglers; providing marketing information to distributors and smugglers in order to have the most in-demand cigarettes in the market; generating false or misleading invoices, bills of landing, shipping documents, and other documents that expedite the smuggling process; shipping cigarettes designated for one port knowing that the cigarettes will be diverted to another port and then smuggled; making arrangements for the cigarettes to be paid for in a virtually untraceable way, including using Swiss corporations and/or Swiss bank accounts in an attempt to improperly utilize Swiss banking and privacy laws as a shield to protect the smugglers from government investigations.


Market Tracking International Ltd, a research firm based in London that provides data to tobacco industry publications, estimated in 1997 that 280 billion of the 1 trillion cigarettes exported each year by all producing nations pass through the hands of smugglers, up from 100 billion in 1989.

International smuggling of cigarettes is estimated to cost foreign governments $16 billion each year in lost revenues. The United Kingdom government loses between £1 billion and £1.5 billion each year of tax revenues from cigarettes due to the increase in smuggling of cigarettes from other countries in Europe. Cigarettes in the United Kingdom cost on average £1.50 more than packets on the continent, reflecting stated government policy to discourage smoking by heavily taxing smokers.

It is reported that two organised crime groups alone in Italy take in $500 million each year by smuggling Marlboro cigarettes from Switzerland into Italy. Much of Europe's tobacco trade takes place in Switzerland, where the law basically does not view selling cigarettes to people who smuggle them into another country as a crime.

Truckloads of cigarettes made in Montreal, Canada are shipped to warehouses in New York state in the United States, or elsewhere. Because they are purportedly bound for U.S. or overseas markets, they are not subject to Canada's high tobacco taxes. A modest U.S. federal tax may be paid if the declared destination is the United States. The cigarettes are transferred to the U.S. side of Akwesasne Mohawk territory, which boasts dozens of cigarette shops paying no state taxes. Smugglers take them to the Canadian side in boats on the St. Lawrence, or in cars, vans and pickups plying lightly patrolled border roads. The cigarettes go by various routes to Canadian city streets, where blackmarket operators can take profits and still undercut prices of fully taxed cigarettes. Many smuggled cigarettes end up in Montreal, where they were made.

In 1998, member states of the European Union seized nearly 5 billion smuggled cigarettes, which represented a loss of 118 million euro for the EU budget.

In 2000 it was reported that a multinational tobacco company had relied on a broad smuggling network in the Asian region (Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Burma, Cambodia, China, India, Laos, Malaysiaé, Pakistan, Thailand, Vietnam) in order to improve its market share in the period 1988-96. The company supplied distributors whom it knew would smuggle its cigarettes and circumvent taxes, thus maintaining market share.

In 1999 the WHO estimated that about 300 billion cigarettes, approximately a third of all exports – enter countries as contrabrand each year.

Related UN Sustainable Development Goals:
GOAL 12: Responsible Consumption and ProductionGOAL 17: Partnerships to achieve the Goal
Problem Type:
G: Very specific problems
Date of last update
20.07.2021 – 16:28 CEST